The Great Gatsby is one of the most highly regarded books ever written. The book has sold over 25 million copies, selling an estimated 500,000 copies each year. It has had hundreds of film, television and stage adaptations since release in 1925, however none have been able to capture the imagination of audiences quite like the book can. Now Warner Brothers is bringing the classic novel back to the big screen with a 4th film adaptation. Can celebrated visionary Baz Luhrmann bring all the dramatic glitz to the silver screen successfully or has he produced yet another Gatsby dud?
The Great Gatsby has a fairly deep plot but the basic crux goes like this – told in flashback, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a Yale grad living in a rundown cottage in the West Egg part of New York and spends his days working as a bonds salesman. Carraway is fascinated by his neighbour, a man who throws large parties but is never seen or heard by anybody. Carraway discovers his neighbour is the great Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a rich but lonely playboy who lusts after his lost love, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Daisy is Nick’s cousin, and so Gatsby sparks a friendship with Nick, hoping their friendship will lead to being reunited with the love of his life.
The basic plot is romantic and indeed timeless, it is what the book has been remember for and why it has been so widely read. However, the book has significantly deeper values and meaning than just being a romance novel. It is a commentary of the periods social politics and the excess wealth that essentially derailed a generation and it is something not easily removed from the material. All the plot movements are based around these ideologies but they are ideologies not easily understood by current generations. I myself had to do deep reading to gain further understanding of the period and I’m not alone in this conundrum. With it being so heavily focused on these themes, it in a way makes the film irrelevant due to the little understanding of this period in the modern world.
Baz Luhrmann is a director you either love or hate. Personally, I sway towards dislike. Luhrmann has an undoubtedly great flair for visuals and is capable of crafting gorgeous worlds. However he has a tendency to please the eye but not the mind. The Great Gatsby is sadly no different. Luhrmann directs the film like a supercharged Energizer bunny in the first half, delivering a scrumptious feast for the audience to nom on. When the second half slows and the drama ramps up, Luhrmann is never able to create the poignant moments that drive the classic novel. He wants to hold your attention with his visuals but neglects his characters and his story in the process.
As stated, Luhrmann is unable to direct drama, but he is capable of creating style. The talent assembled by Luhrmann is awe-inspiring and together they craft by far the strongest elements of the film. The production design is impeccable, it is the epitome of class. The detail that has gone into the sets, costumes and special effects is stunning and 1920s New York wouldn’t be the same without these exceptional talents. Luhrmann has had rapper Jay-Z curate the soundtrack, and whilst it is perhaps a touch too heavy with his own work, he has done a fantastic job at adding significant energy to the film. The film beats and flows to the soundtrack and would honestly be a lot more boring without it.
Featuring a few big international players and a massive supporting cast of Australian actors, the cast for The Great Gatsby had my mouth watering long before release and I thankfully haven’t been let down. Surprisingly, Leonardo DiCaprio is perhaps the weakest of the leads. He plays the role quite straight and doesn’t stretch himself, instead delivering a familiar Leo performance. Tobey Maguire though shines as Nick Carraway. I’ve always found him unfairly maligned and with this and the recent Brothers, he has shown himself to be a competent actor capable of greatness. Carey Mulligan makes a perfect Daisy and Joel Edgerton as her husband Tom gives the film a lot of its power in a very strong performance from him. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki also does good work.
The Great Gatsby is a solid effort and is by far the best of the four big screen adaptations. To its detriment, it keeps the novel’s core messages in place which will hold it back from becoming a remembered film due to its irrelevance in the current world. The production design is stunning and the energetic first half is well-worth watching, but once the film slows down Baz Luhrmann completely loses control of his picture and it constantly feels like a chore to sit through. The cast all do outstanding work and when coupled with the gorgeous visuals and production it makes the film a lot better than it has any right to be.