In 1974, Jack Clayton brought F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to the big screen and the film suffered from sticking too close to the source material. Characters rattled off passages of prose from Fitzgerald’s now 88-year-old classic that ultimately fell flat as the film could neither capture the mood or feel the book was able to instill in its readers. With his interpretation of The Great Gatsby, sensory director Baz Luhrmann doesn’t have to worry about his film being tonally flat, but the best description I can come up with is to call it a fascinating misfire, with mountainous peaks and valleys. Is that a recommendation? You be the judge.
Considering his signature, over-the-top approach, Luhrmann may be the best choice to give such a tragic story a jolt of energy. However, Luhrmann has a hard time meshing his vision with the variety of beats the narrative is required to hit and development of character necessary to keep an audience invested.
Beginning, as the book does, with narration from Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the story is told in a series of flashbacks, with bits of strained voiceover here and there. For the life of me I’ll never understand this decision in movies when it comes to adapting novels told in the first person. It’s a sign of lazy storytellers, unwilling to go the extra mile to find a way to get a story’s themes across without a character telling the audience what they are.
Carraway is an unreliable narrator, and I would understand the decision here if this was to be explored to some end, but his words are better served dissected on the page. Amid lavish parties and the spectacle that is Jay Gatsby they serve little purpose here other than to halt the momentum of the film and serve as chapter breaks where none is necessary.
The opening moments of the film, therefore, are of little consequence until Luhrmann provides a not-so-subtle introduction to our main protagonist, Jay Gatsby, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Something of a mystery man of wealth who’s built his empire in West Egg so he could keep an eye on the love of his life across the water. DiCaprio fits right into the role — suave, nervous, yet gentlemanly and endlessly charming — and the goofy introduction to his character and the big grin on DiCaprio’s face as he says, “I’m Gatsby,” inspires laughter as much as it does a sense of fun, but this is also where the film runs into issues.
The same lavish party introduction of Gatsby is also the first sign the film’s editing isn’t in tune with its music. One of The Great Gatsby‘s strong suits is its soundtrack, but the pulse of the music doesn’t march to the same beat as the images on screen. Party goers appear to be moving to a different drum and energy is lost. Additionally, the pacing is never more off than the introduction of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), slowly revealed amidst a flurry of billowing drapes that seems to go on forever.
Luhrmann is clearly a visual storyteller, but with The Great Gatsby he seems to be overcompensating and forgetting something very important… his characters. Yes, part of this story is an emphasis on the emptiness of the lives these people lead and most certainly Daisy and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) are quite empty, just as are the majority of the people surrounding them and those attending Gatsby’s parties.
This is where a novel and a movie must part ways. While characters may be able to exist on the peripheral in the novel or an overall sense of character can be understood in a brief monologue on the page, a character can’t simply exist on screen without some sense as to why they are there. If a director is willing to disregard his/her characters the audience will do the same. That is, unless an actor can somehow break free of a film’s narrative constraints.
DiCaprio is the center of the story. This film is Gatsby round-the-clock and I have no problem with that. DiCaprio is great in the role and a fascinating character to observe. Maguire is a dud. As his character says, he’s “within and without”, though I would suggest more without than within. Maguire does nothing more than bring an adolescent nature to his character that could have been achieved by anyone, though I believe some measure of greatness could have been found in Carraway from an actor with more imagination.
Isla Fisher‘s Myrtle Wilson and her husband George (Jason Clarke) are forgotten almost entirely outside of an introduction and the fateful third act.
Then there’s Jordan Baker played by Rooney Mara look-a-like Elizabeth Debicki. I guess there’s a reason Warner Bros. is giving her credit in the film’s marketing and it wasn’t simply to give online movie bloggers one more character poster to talk about.
Gatsby is only Debicki’s second feature film and she is every bit as memorable as DiCaprio’s Gatsby. Her relationship with Nick isn’t nearly as emphasized as it was in the book and, by comparison, I’d say it’s non-existent. Yet, she manages to light up the room when she’s on screen, be it with a look or whispered comment.
Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce (Moulin Rouge!) understand The Great Gatsby can’t be interpreted on screen exactly as Fitzgerald wrote it, but I can’t say I entirely understand their points of emphasis or all the decisions they’ve made. I also grew frustrated with on the nose moments of narration or character voiceover from “The eyes of God are always watching” and, straight from the book, “They were careless people.” The great thing about movies is these things don’t need to be said as much as they’ll be understood if a director has told an accomplished story and, for better or worse, I think Luhrmann underestimated his ability to tell this story.
The Great Gatsby is, without a doubt, too long and yet it isn’t a disaster. Neither is it a great film or even really a good one for that matter. I did, however, love DiCaprio and Debicki as well as the themes that shine through even though Luhrmann felt compelled to overplay them. I do believe Luhrmann is the right director to give this story a life unlike what is found in the pages of Fitzgerald’s book and had he given his characters a little more attention and played with the narrative just a little more he may have had a hit.