Title: The Great Gatsby
Genre(s): Drama, Romance
Director(s): Baz Luhrmann
Release Year: 2013
Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann, he has a distinct style – one that may very well be a bit too much for many to take in. Regardless, it’s this eye for flair and the over-dramatic which makes Luhrmann a perfect choice to tackle another adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (a book with which I have been enamored since first reading it). Perhaps what the previous adaptations were always missing was this hyper-stylized world that perfectly embodies the lavish lifestyle of Jay Gatsby (played exceptionally well by Leonardo DiCaprio). Though sometimes distracting, both aurally and visually, The Great Gatsby is in many ways the most faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic tale of the American dream, but also almost too literal for every theme to land.
Who Gatsby is, and what makes his story so extraordinary is one of the reasons Luhrmann is such a perfect choice to adapt this novel. His stylistic flourishes, and eye for the melodramatic is what makes his adaptation work so well. Through the perspective of Nick Carraway, our faithful narrator (though we learn early on he, like any decent writer, is a degenerate alcoholic), we learn all about the story of Jay Gatsby, and why he lives the way he does. Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), the “beautiful little fool” that is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), is the focus of Gatsby’s attentions but I can’t help but feel that the film lacks in hitting the emotional resonance which Gatsby’s motivations are supposed to conjure. The unfortunate thing about The Great Gatsby is that Luhrmann and Chris Pearce wrote a very literal adaptation that sometimes misses the mark on delivering the emotional goods. Is this a problem with remaining too close to the source material, or is it that the often times pretentious visuals and soundtrack take away from the impact of scenes? In my opinion, it’s the former, because the latter half of this film feels like a calmer version of the crazy parties that litter the first half, proving that the visuals are not always the problem.
No, instead, this is why a book like The Great Gatsby is a little more difficult to adapt: there’s much to interpret, and only the basic love story can be so literally adapted. However, all of the major pieces of symbolism are present, and kudos to Luhrmann for being able to convey the meaning of The Valley of Ashes in a much more sedated manner, along with the many other symbols that are accurately and convincingly portrayed. However, themes like the decline of the American Dream fail to be represented despite being one of the biggest themes from the book. On top of that, the narration from Nick becomes a little much when we’re already using the medium of film to tell a story. What is the point of making a film adaptation of a book, if you’re going to retain 80% of the narration, and not let the nuances in an actor’s face tell the story? That being said, the narration allows for some of the best lines from the book to be delivered, though the impact of said lines is sorely lacking.
The benefit of Baz Luhrmann doing The Great Gatsby is that there are many reasons for people to go see it. You have a cast that can easily put people in seats and manage to give great performances for the most part, with many of the actors hamming it up beyond belief, such as Joel Edgerton. Tobey Maguire is fairly wasted, feeling more like an object in a scene as opposed to a living, breathing human and Carey Mulligan, though purposefully vacuous, has her talent nearly wasted. DiCaprio naturally shines as Jay Gatsby, capable of unfurling when his mysterious past starts revealing itself, and showing a range of emotions that fit the situation. If there’s a complaint with his performance, it’s that he doesn’t seem to be asked to show subtle emotions, like being worried about Daisy’s approval during a tirade of showering her with gifts. There’s no doubt in my mind that he could and would show that sort of depth had Luhrmann asked for it, but instead he just goes from one emotion to another with very little middle-ground in between.
The beauty of DiCaprio’s job is that he has Luhrmann helping him out to add another layer of understanding to the character of Gatsby. The visual style of the film alone feels very superficial and distracting, which compliments the titular character as he himself is putting on a facade. There’s a lot of subtext that can be gathered from the visual style, but more often than not the visuals act as a style-over-substance problem. Party scenes wind up feeling hollow despite their upbeat, and aesthetically pleasing nature. They work as a means of luring you into the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy, and contribute to Gatsby’s character, but sometimes there’s a bit too much going on to really care. The style helps to punctuate scenes and make them feel more important than they otherwise would have (such as a pivotal moment in the Valley of Ashes), but other times they become a distraction from the core story of the film.
There are many distractions that audiences will have to contend with, however, and perhaps most notably with The Great Gatsby (and as with any Luhrmann film) is the soundtrack. The moment I heard Jay-Z’s “Who Gon Stop Me” as Tom and Nick drank and partied the night away, I instantaneously burst into laughter. It was rather ironic to see a racist character like Tom dancing to a song by Jay-Z. In fact, most of the rap music is jarring in the context of the film, but seems fitting on paper. After all, they’re songs that glorify the wealthy to an absurd extent, and The Great Gatsby is a movie all about the wealthy. It is similar to the way rap music was used in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, empowering a black slave in the script, while also providing music that is dominated by the same race. Unfortunately, the use of the music in The Great Gatsby feels jarring, with only songs like Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” feeling well implemented. It was interesting to have the music be portrayed as diegetic though, having singers and dancers performing their own versions of the same song, with those moments working well.
All in all, The Great Gatsby is a wonderfully ambitious effort that feels like a great fit into Baz Luhrmann’s filmography. It’s audacious, daring, and mesmerizing. But when Gatsby finally shows his true colours, the film becomes more reserved in its over-the-top style, focusing more on the love story between Daisy and Jay than the glam and glitz lifestyle of the rich. This is both a benefit and a fault to The Great Gatsby: while the acting is great and the love story is conveyed with ease, that love story itself feels hollow because The Great Gatsby is not about Gatsby’s hunt for Daisy, it’s about the American Dream. That wouldn’t be a problem if the film focused solely on the dynamic between Daisy and Jay, but their past is barely reflected upon, while his immense wealth and struggles to attain that wealth feel more in the spotlight. It’s a case of Luhrmann wanting to adapt the book as faithfully as possible, while still staying close to home and giving the love story he is more than capable of delivering. Overall, The Great Gatsby is indeed, a great movie, that is hurt only slightly by certain stylistic choices by Luhrmann. Once again, this is another one of his movies which will fall under the ‘love it or hate it’ category, but I certainly represent the former.