F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has acquired legendary status since its publication in 1925, becoming a staple of high school literature classes. It’s been translated to the big screen before, but none of the film adaptations have made as much of a lasting impact. Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who filters Fitzgerald’s novel through his unique filmmaking lens, interpretingGatsby as a tale full of glorious visual excess. In typical Luhrmann style, 2013’s The Great Gatsby is a staggering visual creation, ablaze with colours and dazzling production values, and it’s all in 3D for good measure. And you know what? If you can roll with the punches and accept Luhrmann’s distinctive approach, Gatsby is a hell of a good motion picture, succeeding not just as a visual feast but also as a potent drama with a solid story at its core. Luhrmann’s vision is simply enthralling.
Looking to conquer Wall Street in the summer of 1922, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to New York, renting a home located next to an opulent mansion owned by enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby’s gaudy lifestyle intrigues Carraway, with frequent parties on a grand scale attended by hundreds. Drawn into Gatsby’s luxurious world, Carraway soon learns that his neighbour harbours feelings for Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Carraway’s cousin and Gatsby’s former flame. Daisy lives across the water from Gatsby with her philandering husband Tom (rising Aussie star Joel Edgerton), and Gatsby is determined to woo her back. Thus begins a secret affair between the two, while Tom deals with his own infidelity with local resident Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). Carraway is drawn deeper and deeper into this world, with the gloss being stripped away to reveal the tragedy and obsession lingering underneath.
Luhrmann is clearly enamoured with Fitzgerald’s text, framing the narrative around Carraway in a mental institution after-the-fact typing up his memoirs. Through this, some of Fitzgerald’s words are worked into the film via voiceover and on-screen captions, the latter of which is indulgent but nevertheless enjoyable. Luhrmann also gets to the heart of Gatsby’s character, going back in time to give us a better look at his past. However, Luhrmann fails to take advantage of the chances for profound complexity. While it’s a brilliant device to romanticise Gatsby (he is a bit of a scumbag) since we’re seeing him through Carraway’s awestruck eyes, the character of Daisy is poorly handled. Daisy doesn’t seem worth all the effort; she’s materialistic and shallow, fitting more into Tom’s life than Gatsby wants to acknowledge. In other words, Gatsby is in love with the optimistic vision of Daisy he has in his head, rather than the real girl. There’s solid material here for Luhrmann to delve into how wearying and even dehumanising it is to be someone else’s unrealistic romantic ideal, but he fails to explore this to a satisfying degree. Gatsby is a compelling drama, to be sure, but further thematic undercurrents would have been appreciated.
While Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce remain fairly faithful to the source material, the flick is unmistakably Luhrmann, with the director employing his artistic sensibilities to shape the story. The world of 2013’s The Great Gatsby is stylised, theatrical and wildly extravagant, with Simon Duggan’s sharp 3D cinematography accentuating colours and opulent lighting, while the costumes and sets give the picture a lovely texture. There’s staggering beauty to behold in every frame, and Luhrmann achieved this luminosity for a modest $105 million sum. Luhrmann has been derided for his use of anachronistic music, with Jay Z and Beyoncé songs featured at various times, but it actually highlights the timeless nature of the story’s messages – Luhrmann is drawing parallels between the lifestyles of contemporary rappers and the filthy rich from the 1920s. Artists like Jay Z, after all, are all about what Gatsby stands for: showboating, chest pounding, and substance-less overindulgence. Furthermore, the music is extremely good here, perfectly complementing the on-screen action.
What’s remarkable about Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that it’s not an entirely superficial experience. The visuals are lavish, yet the drama also hits hard. Luhrmann knows how to do big set-pieces, but he’s just as successful with the smaller moments, realising when he needs to settle down to allow the actors to take centre stage. While some critics are denouncing the film as over-the-top, that’s fundamentally the point; Carraway is our entry point into the narrative, and he finds Gatsby’s lifestyle to be extravagant and over-the-top. Hence, we are Carraway, and it was important for us to be inundated with indulgence in order to understand why he goes down such a dark path. The 3D enhances this, thrusting the gaudy lifestyle in our faces. The Great Gatsby was shot natively in 3D, and it looks miraculous; some of the greatest 3D you will ever see. Plus, the movie comes alive with energy and vibrancy during the party sequences, making it hard to complain about how embellished they are.
Regardless of the hate that DiCaprio received in the ’90s, you cannot deny that he’s an outstanding performer, emerging over the past decade or so as one of the most committed thespians of his era. Reteaming with Luhrmann who put him on the map with Romeo + Juliet back in 1996, DiCaprio kills it as Gatsby, perfectly embodying and expressing both aspects of his character: the confident, aspirational millionaire, and the wounded, emotionally stunted man-child behind the mask. He’s firing on all cylinders here, showing how much he deserves an Oscar statue. Maguire has received a lot of criticism, yet this reviewer has no problem with him. Anyone could play this character, to be sure, and he doesn’t own the role, but Maguire is a likeable enough presence. Above all, he’s an Everyman, and it’s possible to project ourselves onto the blank slate of Nick Carraway. Mulligan, meanwhile, is predictably excellent as Daisy. Edgerton also fares well here, handling what’s essentially a cardboard role with genuine skill. Luhrmann clearly wanted Edgerton to be an old-fashioned bad guy, and that’s exactly what Edgerton plays. Anyone familiar with the Australian’s prior work (Animal Kingdom, The Thing, The Square) might have trouble recognising him due to his demeanour and voice here. It’s a fantastic performance. The rest of the actors are just as good, including a tragically underused Adelaide Clemens, who appears for all of one scene (and makes a big impression) before disappearing.
Luhrmann’s detractors should stay well clear of The Great Gatsby, as it’s one big showcase of the filmmaker’s idiosyncrasies refined to perfection. Indeed, this is probably the most impressive and accessible Luhrmann production to date, but there’s no talking to you if you hate the director and his sensibilities. Gatsby is a big lavish Luhrmann melodrama, playing out almost like a Broadway musical with its overacting and unbelievably vast sets. The Great Gatsby will always belong to Fitzgerald, just as Romeo and Juliet will always belong to William Shakespeare, but Luhrmann has created his own memorable visions for both, all the while maintaining great respect to the original source material. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see another version of The Great Gatsby that’s as spectacular as the one that Luhrmann has assembled here.