Movie Review

The Great Gatsby

Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. ...I come to the admission that it has a limit.
The Great Gatsby Movie Poster

US Release Date: 05-10-2013

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann


  • Leonardo DiCaprio
  • Jay Gatsby
  • Carey Mulligan
  • Daisy Buchanan
  • Tobey Maguire
  • Nick Carraway
  • Joel Edgerton
  • Tom Buchanan
  • Isla Fisher
  • Myrtle Wilson
  • Jason Clarke
  • George Wilson
  • Elizabeth Debicki
  • Jordan Baker
  • Amitabh Bachchan
  • Meyer Wolfsheim
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: May 11th, 2013
Leonardo Dicaprio, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton in The Great Gatsby

Leonardo Dicaprio, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton in The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann had the daunting task of translating one of America's most celebrated novels to the movie screen. It had been done before to mixed reviews. Was he up to the challenge...yes and no.

Fans of the book will be struck right away by how Luhrmann changed the narration. It is still told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, but here he is in a sanitarium telling a doctor of a summer he spent in New York. The doctor is treating him for issues such as alcoholism. He gives Nick a journal and instructs him to write of his experience living next to Jay Gatsby.

Thus begins the story of the mysterious and impossibly wealthy Gatsby, who throws huge parties, he barely seems to attend, every weekend at his Long Island mansion. Nick lives next door in an old care takers home. Eventually the two meet and Nick becomes the go between Gatsby and Nick's cousin Daisy, who lives with her husband Tom in another mansion just across the bay from Gatsby's. The two were once in love and Gatsby wants Nick to arrange a reunion.

Luhrmann, who also wrote the screenplay, spoon feeds the plot and details. Luhrmann makes sure that you need not have read the book to know all that is going on. If you have, he clarifies anything that may have been a bit confusing. He does not exactly dumb it down, but too often his direction is far too obvious. Instead of leaving the symbolic billboard of the eyes in the background, he closes in on it several times. He does give us a clear view of Gatsby's past though.

I am not sure if this was Luhrmann's idea or the studio's but whenever jazz music is supposed to be playing, whether in a club or at a party, we hear Hip Hop/Rap instead. I get that the money men want this film to be accessible to a younger audience but the book is the literary staple of the jazz age. Jazz was the music of the young, the music you heard at clubs, the music your parents did not want you to listen to. It was the rap music of its time.  Apparently Warner Bros thinks audiences are too stupid to understand that?

I also have some minor complaints. The book describes Gatsby's lawn as stretching for a mile from the sea to his mansion. Here his home sits practically on the water, with only a pool and some beach separating them. While in Times Square, we see a movie theater showing Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. The Great Gatsby takes place in the summer of 1922, while Robin Hood was not released until October of that year. 

My biggest complaint is that the entire film seemed to be made with a blue screen. Gatsby's mansion, the ocean and New York city are all CGI. The worst moments are when they race about in their cars. They whip around corners, passing every other vehicle on the road, yet no ones hat blows off. Hell, no ones hair even moves as they were so obviously sitting still when those scenes were filmed. I get that this takes place in a different New York than we know today, but Long Island still has those glorious mansions that once inspired Fitzgerald's description of Gatsby's home.

The cast is adequate. DiCaprio, although a tad too old for the part, plays his emotions broad and obvious. This is especially noticeable when Gatsby and Daisy see each other at Nick's home. Mulligan is pleasant as Daisy without being an airhead. Maguire plays his usual wall flower character. Nick is the type of role he has based his career on from Pleasantville to The Cider House Rules. It is even how he played Peter Parker.

The one thing I got out of this viewing is that I really did not like any of the characters. Tom has affairs on his wife. Partially to get back at him, Daisy has an affair with Gatsby, who is a criminal with a huge insecure chip on his shoulders. Jordan and Nick are just observers while Myrtle and George are victims of their own ignorance. This makes for some interesting people but I found myself accepting everyone's fate without sympathy for any of them. 

Luhrmann's best contribution is that he directs with an eye for motion. Everything keeps moving. Even in the dramatic scenes, the actors never stand still. He is a competent director but he really should have filmed on location.

Reviewed on: May 11th, 2013
Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby.

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby.

Eric, you accuse Luhrmann of nearly dumbing down the plot, but you seem more focused on the most inane details rather than the deeper meaning of the story. So Gatsby's lawn didn't live up to how you pictured it. So there was a sign for a movie that shouldn't have opened yet at the time the film is supposed to take place. So the actor's hair doesn't move as much as you'd like during the driving scenes. So what? Those are the most minor, obscure and pointless details to complain about in what is a very well done and modern adaptation of a great book.

Luhrmann brings his own style to Fitzgerald's greatest work. Anyone expecting a cut and dry adaptation from him, is probably not familiar with the director's work. From Romeo & Juliet to Moulin Rouge, the Australian director is well known for including modern music and a modern spin on classic stories. I had no problem at all with the modern music or CGI version of New York City. They are inserted seamlessly into the story. The music might be anachronistic but it fits the mood of each scene. Luhrmann isn't shooting a documentary here. It's more of an Impressionistic representation of the story. A highly stylized take on the novel.

The framing device with Nick narrating from the future in a sanitarium is the film's biggest departure from the novel. It's also completely unnecessary. It tries to explain how and why Nick is telling the story, but we don't need to know that. It adds to the running time without adding anything substantial to the plot. In fact, the film should not only have edited out all of those scenes, it should have removed more of the voiceover narration. Too often we are shown something and then told the same thing in narration, when the showing should have been enough. Film is a visual medium after all. As an example, there is a scene at the small party in New York City with Tom's mistress and her sister when Nick looks out of the window and sees the variety of life going on in the city and he also sees himself looking up at it all, while at the same time taking part in it. We then hear the line from the novel in narration where Nick says the famous line, "I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life." We just saw that, so why are we being told?

Other times however, Luhrmann gets it just right. Daisy is first shown in the book when Nick comes over to visit and he finds her and Jordan lounging on a couch in a windy room, which Fitzgerald describes thusly. "The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling--and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea. The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house." This moment is captured beautifully by Luhrmann and without any obtrusive narration to mar the scene. He should have trusted his visual instincts more often and not relied so much upon Fitzgerald's written words.

One of the greatest weaknesses of the 1974, Robert Redford, version of this story is its lack of chemistry between its leads. That is not a problem here, as there is plenty of heat and passion between DiCaprio's Gatsby and Mulligan's Daisy. Redford often looked bored in his version, while DiCaprio, who also underplays the character, manages to convey the volcano of emotion that is bubbling just below the surface, threatening to burst through the crust of civility that he has taken such care to build up around him.

Mulligan brings a light and life to Daisy that Farrow never came close to. Her's is actually one of the more complicated characters in the story and one of the few about whom your opinion will change as the story continues. At the start, she is the wronged woman. Her husband has a lover and she was, not forced, but certainly pushed, into marriage with him. By the end of the story, however, she proves to be as careless as Nick describes her and someone who indeed, retreats back into her money when things go wrong, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

Fitzgerald wrote some of the greatest prose of all time. This book is one of the greatest American novels ever written. As Eric said, Luhrmann had a daunting task ahead of him when he decided to reinterpret it for the big screen. Others had tried before him and failed. By bringing his stylized view of 1920's New York City to the screen and by inserting modern music, he may have put off some viewers, as he seems to have done Eric, but instead of restraining himself, he should have gone further. As the 1974 version did, he relies too heavily on Fitzgerald's words. If we're going to hear so much of the book read aloud, we might as well, as audiences, simply read the book ourselves. Luhrmann often manages to effectively visualize Fitzgerald's words, while other times falling back to the safety of the narration. Still, despite a few minor weaknesses, this is easily the best adaptation to date of The Great Gatsby.

As a final thought, I will just add that I took the trouble of seeing this movie in 3-D because it was filmed that way, rather than simply converted to it after the fact. I was relying on Luhrmann's visuals to make this worth the extra few dollars. I was wrong. As is so often the case with 3-D, it added nothing of value.

Reviewed on: May 12th, 2013
Leonardo DiCaprio is The Great Gatsby.

Leonardo DiCaprio is The Great Gatsby.

I'm going to openly discuss the ending so if you don't know it and haven't seen the movie yet, stop reading. Like Scott, I wasn't in the least put off by the use of CGI or by the modern music. Normally I would be bothered by these details but I just went with it and honestly, after the more manic first half the music plays a much less intrusive role during the movie's second half. I wasn't expecting to enjoy this version much, but to my surprise Luhrmann has made quite an entertaining movie that -for the most part- remains true to Fitzgerald's plot while really capturing the spirit of the novel.

Yes, I would have preferred it if he had used traditional jazz music, but the inclusion of hip-hop does not seriously mar the picture. Just as jazz was the musical choice of the young who went to clubs to dance in the 1920s, so hip hop has been in America for the past two decades. There is also a racial component; hip hop has been a predominantly African-American genre just as many jazz musicians in the roaring twenties were black. Speakeasy’s were one of the earliest places in American society where blacks and whites mingled together socially. The Great Gatsby embodies so many ways in which the 1920s was the first truly modern decade.

The cast is very good and, although I am not normally a big fan of his, I have to admit that DiCaprio really pulls off Jay Gatsby. He's much better in the role than Redford was. As Scott said, he brings more fire and passion to the character. You really get his subtext through Leo's acting; Gatsby's humble background, his hopeless romanticism, his obsession with self-improvement, never taking his eyes off the prize (Daisy). He also embodies Gatsby's shyness nicely, his awkward social graces and sense of humor. The scene where he first has tea with Daisy at Nick's cottage is very well done, with the levity of the scene being successfully played up more than the 1974 version managed to do.

I also liked Mulligan as Daisy. Again agreeing with Scott, she really captures the complexities and allure of the character. At the beginning she endears sympathy and seems like a fairly interesting person. By the end she is revealed to be selfish, vapid and cowardly. But thankfully Gatsby doesn't live to see it. She remains forever flawless in his imagination. She is his dream girl, a beautiful princess who represents everything he has striven to become and achieve. But she means far more than that to Gatsby. She is more -even- than just his One True Love. She also embodies his nostalgic longing for the past. Gatsby is wistful for the life he imagined he would lead. The life he spent all his time and energy willing into existence. The one he would have lived if only the war hadn't come along and Daisy hadn't married Tom. The audience knows this to be an impossible dream but Gatsby dies believing in it. He keeps his purity and innocence right up till the end.

I disagree with Scott only about his claim that the movie uses too many lines directly from the novel. Overall I think the balance was pretty damn good and the voice-over technique certainly fits since the book is told as a first person narrative. While I concur Luhrmann did a great job visualizing Daisy's first scene, the other example Scott used is a scene that actually benefited from the voice-over dialogue. Merely showing Nick looking out the hotel room window, seeing himself looking up and then showing all the various people in other rooms gives you the “within and without” as well as the “inexhaustible variety of life” but you don't get the fact that Nick is “simultaneously enchanted and repelled” by it all, without the narration. And besides, recognizing your favorite lines from the book is one of the main pleasures in seeing the movie version. I was glad they included Fitzgerald's entire final paragraph. In fact there was one line I wish they had included they didn't. It's my favorite line spoken by Daisy. It's in her first scene where, in the book, she mentions always looking for the longest day of the year and always missing it. It's a line that perfectly captures her personality. She starts off sounding intelligent and a little quirky then suddenly turns banal.

The one minor detail I would change from the novel is the placement of the revelation about Gatsby's true past. I understand that for the book Fitzgerald needed to let the reader get to know a bit more about his enigmatic creation in order for them to care at all about him. So naturally he gives away Gatsby's background in the middle of the book. The movie, thanks in large part to Leo DiCaprio's performance, doesn't need it. We are watching Jay Gatsby brought to life and discovering him as we go. Sure we know he isn't who he says he is because, well frankly, there just isn't anybody else like him around. Saving the details for the end would make a more poignant cinematic impact in my opinion. Despite what I would change about it, this Gatsby is greater than expected.

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