It’s honestly quite difficult writing a review for The Great Gatsby, this fifth film adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel. Coming from Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet director Baz Luhrmann, the film is visually dazzling and energetic – at times almost manic – but it also seems to be unable to decide what it wants to be: a grand love story or a tragedy about clinging to idealised memories.
It honestly doesn’t help that I watched the 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow – arguably the definitive, most famous take on the book – only three days ago, and it’s all too easy to make continual comparisons between the two films. Avoiding that for the most part though, the older movie feels far more authentic; populated by real, emotionally complicated people. Luhrmann isn’t known for his subtlety as a filmmaker and despite some valiant teary-eyed efforts by leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, in particular, this new Great Gatsby looks and feels completely artificial. You’re watching this one for the eye candy; not a history lesson about the decadent New York of the Roaring Twenties.
The Great Gatsby 2013 is more explicit and obvious all around, from the plot to the film’s 3D. Starting with the story, in summary for those who don’t know, The Great Gatsby follows writer-turned-stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who moves to the East Coast from Chicago, and finds himself surrounded by the rich, drunk and debauched of Long Island. Initially just an unjudging observer, he finds himself complicit in an affair between his married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), who share a passionate past.
This is all good and well but the pacing of The Great Gatsby handles like one of the monstrous cars the ultra-rich of Long Island drive. It surges out the gate, sending the viewer into seizures with a flurry of shots each no longer than a second. Then it slips into second gear for an hour before revving back up to race through the untouched plot as quickly as possible. The 1974 Gatsby was very leisurely paced – it’s pretty much the same length as the new movie at over 140 minutes, for the record. However, the older film’s progression felt comfortable and natural, as opposed to staccato as it does here.
Also, for anyone familiar with the novel and older film, it’ll set your eyes rolling to see how all subtlety and ambiguity is stripped out of the film for contemporary audiences. For example, we get to see Gatsby and Daisy writhing around in bed together, Gatsby’s backstory is neatly laid out for us and, worst of all, the story has been embedded within another trite story. Basically the film is told in flashback as a depressed and alcoholic Nick is tasked with writing down events by his therapist.
It’s all just so obvious.
And the same goes for the film’s use of 3D. For the record, Gatsby was shot specifically for the format instead of being a post-production conversion. However, while the 3D is certainly striking here – unlike Iron Man 3, you are aware of its impact the entire time – its use is perfunctory. The 3D in Gatsby is very much of the cookie-cutter or View-Master style. In other words, how foregrounded people and objects are in the frame is how much they stand out. And that’s pretty much it. It’s uncreative, unlike in Life of Pi, Hugo, or even Oz the Great and Powerful, where the 3D was utilised with clear artistic purpose.
Luhrmann is a divisive filmmaker, and that carries through into his casting choices here. Just as the film’s pounding contemporary soundtrack pulls you out of the Twenties setting, it’s actually hard to view the actors, who come with such cemented screen personae, as men and women of the time. Wild-eyed Maguire reeks of dorky Peter Parker and is especially off-putting, but some actors fare better than others. Unknown Australian Elizabeth Debicki really looks the period part – tall and skinny as the flapper friend often paired with Nick. Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s unfaithful husband Tom also convinces. DiCaprio is good, although you get the sense he should have played the title role maybe five years ago.
In the end, The Great Gatsby is dazzling, but for a supposed daring and inventive reimagining that introduces 21st Century cinematic flair to a 90 year old tale, it really isn’t at all. The changes are all cosmetic. It takes ages to get going and then it sadly, and lazily, doesn’t add anything new to the mix – pulling away from all moments where complex, more credible emotions could peek out from cracks in the caricatures.
Last Updated: May 16, 2013