I suppose anyone setting out to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel is destined for failure. The Great Gatsby is one of those rare literary experiences that is simply too perfect to be adequately captured on the big screen. Still, Baz Lurhmann swings for the fences on this ambitious adaptation and he achieves some moderate success. Lurhmann has created a film that is both captivating and infuriating in equal measure.
For those unfamiliar with the novel…just go buy it. The Great Gatsby is likely available everywhere except North Korea, and it’s an easy read. Casual readers can finish the novel in a weekend, and dedicated readers can finish it in an afternoon. It’s a legitimately fantastic book that everyone should read. Having said that, I’m about to spoil the shit out of the novel, so don’t proceed any further into this review if you haven’t read it and have any interest in becoming a better person.
The screenplay, prepared by Baz Lurhmann and co-writer Craig Pearce, faithfully adheres to the source material. The film follows passive narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he arrives in New York in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. He links up with his vapid cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her pampered-yet-brutish husband, Tom Buchanan (a terrific Joel Edgarton). Carraway soon meets the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man known throughout New York City for throwing lavish parties—parties that he never bothers to attend. Gatsby’s extravagant galas are really just a ruse to attract the attention of Daisy. When that fails to work, Gatsby enlists Carraway in his scheme to win the affection of Daisy. Gatsby is rewarded for all of his trouble by being shot to death in his own pool.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Jay Gatsby stands out as the film’s brightest spot. At first blush DiCaprio seems just a bit too old and world-weary to play the naïve Gatsby, but he works. DiCaprio seems to understand the character and his motivations, and further, he excels at playing the sort of driven character that would conquer the entire world in five years for the love of a woman. His performance as the doomed Gatsby is charismatic, comical, and ultimately heartbreaking. If the film itself had lived up to DiCaprio’s performance, The Great Gatsby would have easily been one of the best movies of the year.
Unfortunately, I’m not certain that Lurhmann understands the material. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work is multi-layered and often subtle; The Great Gatsby is about much more than Jay Gatsby’s love affair with Daisy Buchanan. Lurmann’s adaptation, on the other hand, is surprisingly literal and overwrought. Lurhmann is more obsessed with the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties than the barbed commentary that lay beneath the surface.
The director revels in the festivities, depicting Gatsby’s soirees as explosions of vibrant colors and sound. Lurhmann ups the tempo by incorporating modern rap and pop songs into particularly kinetic sequences. His expert use of 3D further heightens proceedings. The parties are loud, the cars are fast, and the emotional interactions between the characters are intense.
However, Lurhmann treats the material as if he were creating a spiritual sequel to his larger-than-life adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Lurhmann’s ultimately drawn to the doomed love story at the center of The Great Gatsby. The movie conveys the impression that the real tragedy here is that star-crossed lovers Jay and Daisy are torn apart by forces beyond their control.
That only touches the surface. I have no intention of burdening this review with my own interpretation of the novel, but I strongly suspect F. Scott Fitzgerald was attempting to do more than tell a compelling love story. Much of Fitzgerald’s wry commentary is abandoned in this adaptation. What you see is what you get.
But some of the blame for this adaptation’s failure has to be laid on the shoulders of Tobey Maguire. His narration is god-awful. As with the novel this story is told through Nick Carraway’s eyes. Carraway’s voice drives the story.
Virtually anyone can play Nick Carraway as a character. He’s a passive, insubstantial man with no defining characteristics. He barely registers within the story. Not everyone can dramatically recite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, however. A sort of glibness and dry humor pervades everything Fitzgerald ever wrote. His novels are strikingly conversational. Fitzgerald’s prose requires the linguistic skills of someone like Robert Downey Jr. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, recites passages of the novel as if he were reading it aloud for a high school literature class. Every line that comes out of Maguire’s mouth is flat and blandly sincere. He strips Fitzgerald’s beautiful prose of all of its poetry. I don’t think I’ve ever despised an actor more for a single performance than I despise Tobey Maguire for his crime against the great American novel here.
And yet, when DiCaprio is on screen and the narration dies off, the movie is absolutely magnetic. There are several sequences where the film feels exactly as if Fitzgerald’s material has been brought to life. Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby is almost a great film. However, it’s far too superficial to rise to the level of its source material.