Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel is getting a lot of negativity thrown its way. While I have been excited for this film for some time, I wasn’t really surprised to find the majority of critics nailing it to the cross. Being based on a beloved piece of literature will tend to work against a film before the cameras even start to roll. While the critiques against Luhrmann’s interpretation have some merit, the film isn’t the train-wreck Rotten Tomatoes would like you to believe it is. Just as the title character is a man in disguise whose elaborate parties are a mere illusion, the film itself is a sincere story disguised as an elaborate spectacle. It’s sense of hope is just as large as Gatsby’s is, as it hopes to achieve the same wonders as the novel it’s based on in a very different fashion and medium. It doesn’t quite hit the mark it excels toward, but it’s an interesting take nonetheless that may be more appreciated in time.
Luhrmann’s interpretation reminds me of another literary adaptation that was met with lukewarm response. Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” had a similar type of stylized vision as Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” something that didn’t resonate well with audiences who felt the film’s visual spectacle was a distraction from its greater ideas. Both Snyder and Luhrmann are known for their stylistic tendencies and it’s no surprise that both films are aesthetically pleasing. The difference is that it’s not expected in a film based on Fitzgerald’s novel, but I found the whirring editing of the film reminiscent of the time period it’s trying to convey, a 1920s that is boasting with parties and scandal. It may have been detrimental for some critics but I went into the theater with an open mind.
Because of this, I was able to enjoy the film probably more than those who may have wanted something a little more grounded. What may throw most off is the soundtrack, which is an unexpected concoction fine-tuned by none other than Jay-Z himself. Whoever went into this movie not expecting the likes of Jay-Z or will.i.am to ring in their ears must have been rather taken aback. Old school viewers will feel the soundtrack is a misfire, missing the point of the novel. But here’s how I see it. The story of “The Great Gatsby” is rooted in the past catching up with the present. Therefore, I find it fitting that Luhrmann chooses to mesh modern music with the roaring 1920s setting.
Leonardo Dicaprio stars as Gatsby and fits the mold of the character well. Gatsby seems like a larger-than-life character and Dicaprio is one of the biggest names in the industry. But that’s only on the surface. Strip away the elaborate parties and fancy mansion and there’s a man who doesn’t care about any of it. He only cares about Daisy Buchanan, the woman he loved and lost and is trying to get back. Once you take the material things away what’s left is a more human character. Dicaprio makes the transition between suave businessman and lovesick child seamlessly.
Carey Mulligan is Daisy, the woman Gatsby longs for. Mulligan gives a respectable performance and she seems right at home in the ’20s. However, while the two have good chemistry, Dicaprio’s star power seems to overshadow her. Daisy is portrayed as a victim, having lost the person she loves years ago only to wed another man who now can’t stand her. Despite this, in the end we can’t sympathize with her. Her and her husband Tom, played by Joel Edgerton, aren’t meant to be likable characters. In fact, both the book and movie make a point of acknowledging this. Finally, Tobey Maguire rounds out the principal cast as Nick Carraway, the narrator reminiscent of Fitzgerald himself who puts the story into perspective. Maguire gives a performance that is never undermined by Dicaprio. In fact, while the story revolves around Gatsby, Maguire’s Carraway is nothing short of the star.
If the movie had been made by a different director and more grounded, could it have been just as good, if not better? Yes. But I don’t think that should detract from Luhrmann’s own attempt. It’s a respectable crack at a film that had much more going against it at the start than going for it. The pressure of adapting such beloved pieces of work must be a daunting task for anyone, and Luhrmann didn’t sacrifice his own unique style while still sticking to the source material. His film is, despite what critics say, never boring. The grand finale seems to be rushed a tad, but doesn’t lose its edge. In the end, Luhrmann crafts a film that was never intended to be a safe bet, and he runs with it anyway. If nothing else, Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” will be remembered as the modern-age attempt at the classic novel that failed with most and scored with some, but I give it kudos for being unique.