Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fischer, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan
Few novels throughout history have had the honour to be given the title of ‘The Great American Novel’. The term was created in 1868 by John William De Forest, an American soldier and writer of realistic fiction, to praise books that could masterfully describe the American identity and place it consequently in cultural context (the Zeitgeist). Among a prestigious list of literary works, including The Catcher in the Rye and Moby-Dick, one is able to recognize The Great Gatsby written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It isn’t a surprise that this classic work has inspired a number of movies since its publication in 1925.
Known for Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Romeo + Juliet (1996), Baz Luhrmann’s reputation precedes him greatly. Many film critics had therefore prejudged his latest work either positively or negatively before going to the theatres. While some compared it to the original novel, others argued how the 1974 screen adaptation is way better. The film, directed by Jack Clayton, included big names such as Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Similarly, the 2013 version includes names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. However, if it’s possible to note something on the Clayton version without attempting too much of a comparison between the two productions, it has to be the fact that Clayton literally stuck to Fitzgerald’s story. On the contrary, Luhrmann’s approach of loosely interpreting the essence of the story (and even adding to that) may seem radical, but in the end proves to be the best and most entertaining choice for a twenty-first century audience. The Great Gatsby is and should not be a documentary after all.
…penchant for visual sumptuousness, flair for razzle dazzle, and take-no-prisoners commitment to spectacle, even if over story. — THE DAILY BEAST on Baz Luhrmann
Frankly, I had not seen any other movie by Luhrmann and still I completely disagree with The Daily Beast which gives voice to most of the criticism towards the director. It’s funny how critics use the same ‘razzle dazzle’ in their comments about Luhrmann. Anyway, the movie features a wide array of modern songs. Its soundtrack has subsequently been the subject of much debate. While the setting is the Roaring Twenties, the soundtrack led by Jay-Z features modern rap, rock and pop. Unlike many critics, I do not see the problem in this conscious choice. Tracks such as No Church in the Wild and Young and Beautiful instil a certain effect of extravaganza onto the entire movie. Surely these songs do not match the context of the Twenties at all, but the bigger question is, should they be matching? Or should a modern soundtrack rather focus on depicting the scandalous and outrageous world of Jay Gatsby so the audience can identify much more easily with the characters and the story? As obscure this may seem, Luhrmann and Jay-Z have done a tremendous job in drawing you in another world with unfamiliar standards and values.
To literary purists, the Luhrmann version may sound like a true nightmare. The overstylized and hyperactive scenes give food for thought nonetheless. Just as with the soundtrack, the stylistic interpretation of the 1920s is breathtaking by capturing the wealthy life (most of) the characters are immersed into. The movie plot included enough symbolism for my part and I advise people who think it lacked symbolic meaning to read the novel instead. On the other hand, I must admit that I did find it odd at some times how loosely Luhrmann had interpreted the original work. Take for example Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who had been placed in a mental institution. That gave the movie a cheap feeling to it which is a real pity.
However, the acting fortunately compensates. Almost all roles are well-played. DiCaprio portrays Gatsby in a sublime way and stays true to how the character was and came to be. In an article by Drew Taylor on IndieWire, he commented on the five most ridiculous things in the movie. Taylor stated how ‘old sport’ isn’t a catchphrase, but has been mistakenly used as one, “a lot of times” while having no added value. Actually, truth to be told, it’s the other way around. And while this detail may seem insignificant to many, it outlines Jay Gatsby to the point. By emphasizing the phrase, Luhrmann achieves a sense of character development. This emphasis has made DiCaprio’s version of Gatsby, among many other things, come alive as a character in today’s world.
Other than DiCaprio, the rest of the cast tries to do their best. Especially Joel Edgerton’s portrayal of the pompous Tom Buchanan is surprisingly good. Furthermore, Carey Mulligan played a Daisy right to the point. You will love her and you will hate her. That, unfortunately, does not go with Tobey Maguire’s character. I found it odd how Luhrmann pushed Carraway, the protagonist of the story, aside and primarily focused on Gatsby and his world. As a result, you won’t see Carraway develop over time, which he does in the novel and proves to be really important. This underexposition won’t be much of a problem for regular moviegoers anyhow.
In short, Luhrmann’s filmography leans heavily on his extravagant and theatrical style. This fits perfectly with the essence of the story, but also ensures that Luhrmann occasionally misses its target. Subtlety within The Great Gatsby, save the phenomenal ending, is often absent making Fitzgerald’s original social commentary sadly missed. The Great Gatsby is an entertaining ride through one of the greatest novel in American literature which may not satisfy literary purists but will definitely speak to a wider and younger audience.