Published on January 27th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Great Gatsby 
Summary: On paper, Baz Luhrmann is the perfect guy to craft The Great Gatsby's elaborate party scenes, unfortunately much of the substance that fills this story is missing from his glitzy adaptation.
PG-13 | 142 min.
Director: Baz Luhrmann | Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo Dicaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures
The eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg may have been watching, and weeping, over the production of 2013’s The Great Gatsby, but thank goodness F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t have to see it. The author has been dead for over 70 years, and perhaps it’s time we put his most beloved work to rest for a while too.
This version marks the fifth time since 1926 that the prototypical “Great American Novel” has been adapted to the screen, not to mention a hip-hop version, Broadway musical and recent opera based on the story. Fitzgerald’s story is still required reading for high school kids across the country–and for good reason. Although the book is nearly 90 years old, The Great Gatsby is still relevant as a high-brow commentary on materialism and–a topic we’re more fascinated with than ever–the lives and secrets of the super rich.
Director/co-writer Baz Luhrmann is the go-to guy for glitz, glamour and in-your-face productions, making him the perfect candidate to bring Gatsby to the 21st century. That is, if your chief concern are the book’s vivacious party scenes and nothing of the story’s subtle substance.
Luhrmann, whose previous credits include Moulin Rouge (2001), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and that weird inspirational music video from the ’90s about wearing sunblock, goes for broke in the film’s production values but leaves us with an adaptation containing little humanity. Unlike his Shakespeare adaptation, Luhrmann keeps the story set in the 1920s but oddly decides to fill the soundtrack with modern pop and hip-hop tracks–excuse me, Jay-Z tracks. After hearing so many tunes from Hova in the film’s first hour, you’ll not be surprised to see him listed as an executive producer in the closing credits.
My wife, a big Luhrmann fan, loved the use of current music against the antique setting but I was distracted by it and truthfully didn’t think it had the impact it could have. If he had maybe used more songs specifically about excess to point to the story’s central theme I would have been more forgiving but when “Who Gon Stop Me” comes on and Kanye West is spitting, “This is something like the Holocaust, millions of our people lost,” I fail to make the connection with a bunch of rich white people partying. On the other hand, how did John Legend’s “Give Me the Green Light” not make the cut?!
The cast has some legitimate star power at the top with Leonardo Dicaprio bringing his usual mix of class and danger to the role of the enigmatic title role. Former Oscar nominee and box office draw Tobey Maguire plays the film’s most important role though, as narrator Nick Carraway, the touchstone for audiences and readers of Fitzgerald’s story. Carey Mulligan, one of my favorite actresses in the game today, is Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin and the object of Gatsby’s intense devotion. Rounding out the principals is Australia’s Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty, Animal Kingdom and Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels!) as antagonist Tom Buchanan.
While these actors are strong on paper, I felt like none were very connected to their roles in this picture, it just never felt real to me. Maguire is unquestionably the most controversial choice in this cast, he’s just too much of an everyman to play this part. Nick is a guy who fought in World War I after going to Yale–two things I don’t buy from Maguire’s portrayal–in this film he just comes off as kind of an “awe shucks” doofus. I was also surprised that the script, which Luhrmann co-wrote with longtime collaborator Craig Pearce, almost entirely eliminates Nick’s homosexual tendencies, a prevalent part of his character in the book.
The Great Gatsby is essentially a look at one man’s obsession and love for another man. In the film, Nick is clearly enamored with Gatsby but there doesn’t seem to be anything more than a fascination and at times, it seems like he wants to expose what he suspect’s are Gatsby’s lies–something the book’s Nick would have protected. I have no problem with new interpretations of old works but completely de-gaying Nick Carraway in a film adaptation in 2013 feels like a step backward.
My biggest issue with this movie is that I had such a difficult time connecting with it beyond my eyeballs, which were in heaven for the entire length. They had their look in mind and nailed it but beyond that, it just feels like a lot of style with no substance–which is amazing considering the source material is so rich. It’s great that a lot of kids may discover The Great Gatsby because of this glitzy adaptation but it likely won’t drive them toward the novel because, let’s face it, who reads a book when you can just read a meme? I found the editing of the picture to be jarring as each scene contains a cut between nearly all lines of dialogue. This also didn’t seem to do the actors any favors, often clipping their lines extremely short in favor of moving on to the next audio/visual spectacle.
Also, I think I’d take a million more hours of listening to Dicaprio’s Shutter Island Boston accent if I never had to hear him say “Old Sport” again.