Not to sound like a literary snob or anything, but The Great Gatsby is truly one of my favorite books. There’s something so sexy about those huge swinging flapper-era parties and the cool mystery of Gatsby’s identity. F. Scott Fitzgerald weaves together a fascinatingly rich story in which our understanding of the individual characters changes throughout the book while the characters themselves remain steadfastly consistent.
Baz Luhrman’s THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) is without a doubt one of the most lavish productions I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the film as a whole misses the mark because it lacks the depth of characterisation of the original novel. It’s a sledgehammer of a show, but the sledgehammer only succeeds in knocking the nail all the more sideways. It’s too shiny, too loud, too busy. This is one case where I wish the too-muchness of this movie had a volume nob so we could turn it down a bit.
Set design (Beverly Dunn)
Gatsby’s mansion: Now, the Gatsby mansion really is too big to be credible. The gigantic castle is rather more like the Xanadu of CITIZEN KANE (1941) than the nouveau riche abode of Gatsby. This is one example of how this production went over the top just a bit too much. It’s supposed to be big and lavish, but c’mon people!
Nick Carroway’s cottage: In a word, perfect. Nick’s cottage is the right economic style for his humble origins and profession.
The Buchanan residence: The vast colonial mansion Daisy and Tom Buchanan live in resembles an oversized Monticello. The style of it fits the old money background of Tom’s family, but it is almost too big to really reflect the type of family described in the book. Of course, perhaps I have just not been imagining it big enough in my mind’s eye when reading the story – that’s also perfectly plausible.
New York: Luhrman’s vision of the shifting nature of the city during the early part of the 20th century is fairly historically accurate. Buildings were bigger and people were crazier. The stock market was a beehive of activity. My only criticism would be that there seem to be too many people, even for 1920s New York City. You see, while there were more people than ever in NYC at that time, to us it would still seem like there were a lot less, and that the buildings were generally not so epic as we have now.
The Valley of Ashes: Ingeniously perfect, though more populated than that environment would suggest. In general, I think there were too many people in this movie, and that problem stood out most in the region surrounding the Wilson gas station.
Costumes (Catherine Martin)
There is a peacock’s parade of costumes in THE GREAT GATSBY. The multicoloured variation of clothing for both genders really brought the story to life and gave tremendous credibility to the swinging sense of the era. There must have been a million different dresses and frocks and suits and ties and hats, you name it. Everything was very shiny. And glittery. Absolutely gorgeous. Spot on.
The decision to use a combination of modern and 1920s music was a risky one, and one that missed its mark. One of the best music sequences was at Nick’s first Gatsby party. He (and the movie audience) meets Gatsby to the phenomenal strains of George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody in Blue while fireworks explode in the background. It’s a breathtaking scene. Unfortunately, the use of Beyonce and Will. I. Am tunes as well makes the soundtrack feel disjointed. It’s easy to see where they were trying to go with the music, but it just doesn’t work.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby): Oh, Leo, Leo, Leo. Gatsby is supposed to be cool, suave, mysterious, with the heart of a little boy who’s crushing on the first girl he ever kissed. He’s not supposed to be a slightly deranged control freak who obsesses over a girl to the point of creeperism. The intensity of DiCaprio’s acting style completely overpowers Gatsby’s subtle nobility. It’s hard to sympathise with Nick’s disillusionment when we cannot properly ally ourselves with Gatsby’s greatness.
Tobey Maguire (Nick Carroway): Tobey Maguire is just the type of actor you want to play the naivley oblivious Nick. It is unclear why he, or the director, chose to play Nick as a bit of a drunk tearaway with some sort of bro-mance thing going for Gatsby. The Nick of Fitzgerald’s novel is a steady observer who becomes disillusioned with life when the people he thought he knew and respected completely screw over a great man who has earned his respect and friendship. This rich narrator-character loses his depth when we see him participating so eagerly in the shallow exploits of the other characters. Oh, and why is he in a sanitarium? Where the heck did that come from?
Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan): Mulligan has the perfect look for Daisy, but her acting simply does not rise to the challenge. She is so vapid, it is almost impossible to see how she could drive a man crazy for five years. This description of Daisy in the original novel is completely lacking from Mulligan’s performance in the film:
“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”
Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker): Not enough of a tomboy to be credible as the sportswoman who cheated at golf. She has the right look, but she’s didn’t make Jordan interesting enough to really come to life.
Isla Fisher (Myrtl Wilson): Complete fail. This is one of the most important characters of the story – the plot practically revolves around her – but we can’t care about what she does or what is done to her unless we have some sense of who she is. It is nothing less than a crime that Myrtle has been shunted onto the sidelines in this movie. Also, her physical description is completely off; here’s how she’s described in the book:
“She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.”
Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan): Absolutely perfect. He’s loathsome, yet understandable. At the end of the day, he seems much more plausible than most of the other characters we’re supposed to care about.
THE GREAT GATSBY was by far the most entertaining film I’ve seen in a long time. There was a clear respect for the literature, even if the movie didn’t reach the sincerity or depth of the original novel. The spirit of 1920s was present in the most vibrant way imaginable. It cannot be denied that the era embodied an energy that was overwhelming for those swept away with it, as well as those of us experiencing the age through film. Although this movie misses it’s mark, and although there will never be anything like the book, I certainly don’t regret having seen it. The flaws in this production didn’t make me angry – it didn’t make me feel like some huge injustice had been done to great American literature. I strongly recommend that everyone see this movie and enjoy it for what it’s worth. Then go read the book if you’d like to experience something with more depth.