Review: The Great Gatsby


First off, if you don’t understand that sub-header than you need to crack F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby open and give it a read. If you’re like me you haven’t touched the thing since high school and it’s well worth a re-read now that you aren’t a teenager. I’m not actually sure if reading the book will make you enjoy the movie more as it’s possible that ignorance is bliss here, but you should really read it anyway.

It’s a quick read, right? Glad you came back. So you’ve just finished one of the greatest pieces of American literature, full of subtle prose, elegantly constructed witticism and a crushing social commentary that miraculously still applies today. Now you want to know what Baz Luhrmann has done to it.

The Great Gatsby
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Release Date: May 10, 2013
Rating: PG-13

The Great Gatsby - HD Trailer 3 90" cut - Official Warner Bros. UK

The Great Gatsby is sure to be a divisive film. Much like Spring Breakers it all depends on your belief in the intelligence of its director. The film is either the least understanding adaptation of all time or the most self reflective, metaphysical. Luhrmann’s brash style, Jay-Z created score and general opulence either completely ignore Fitzgerald’s condemnation of elite society in the 1920s by glorifying it to a ludicrous extent or he is using that ludicrousness to not only claim the same commentary on society through hyperbole, but also reflect on the opulence and ridiculousness of Hollywood films — even his own. I hope that it is actually reveling in its own glory because if not then I really enjoyed a very insulting film.

Since you just finished reading the book there’s no need to go into the plot at the moment, suffice to say that aside from a few tweaks and a scaling back of Jordan Baker’s (Elizabeth Debicki) character this is a very faithful adaptation to Fitzgerald’s novel in terms of plot points. If you haven’t read the book you’re in for a ride as almost everything is there to the point that it becomes slightly detrimental as the film stretches out to 143 minutes in length. Anything that long can always use some trimming.

This is Baz Luhrmann we’re talking about so trimming is the last thing that gets done, and thanks to his bombastic style Gatsby is a pleasure to see no matter how long it is. Scenes explode with life and color as the camera plays up every moment to the point of credulity and the 3D hammers home the sublime absurdity of it all. Is the 3D necessary? Not in the way it was in Hugo, but as another step in Luhrmann’s attempt to bastardized the source material into something so over-the-top it can only be taken as a commentary it works wonderfully. And if there’s one thing that Luhrmann’s style truly can do well it’s telling an epic love story. After all, behind (or in front of?) all the social commentary and pinpoint writing that’s what the book is too.

That story is damn enjoyable, and if you take away the argument over whether the film insults its source you’ll find yourself watching a damn enjoyable movie. Much like his previous films, everything is big and dazzling for Luhrmann here, though he does surprisingly tone it down as the story progresses to its inevitable conclusion. Leonardo DiCaprio is once again brilliant as one of the most layered characters in literature and his Gatsby comes screaming off the screen in the most subtle of ways despite being played up by Luhrmann at every chance. In fact DiCaprio might be the best representation of the book on screen with his nuanced performance. Carey Mulligan delivers a strong enough daisy, and for the first time in a long while I didn’t think of Peter Parker when I saw Tobey McGuire, though I still believe him miscast as the film’s narrator, Nick Carraway. 

The soundtrack both works and doesn’t. At times the contradiction of modern hip hop music and 1920s splendor agree with each other, adding another layer to the themes of false happiness and impossible glory. At others it seems entirely out of place and a hindrance to the film. This is especially true when Luhrmann is being his least subtle, like during an near orgy at the beginning of the film when Carraway and Tom Buchanan go into the city with Buchanan’s mistress. In the book this is subtly handled, in the film its an all out party with garish style that almost pushes to the point of a Busby Berkley musical. Again, you’re stuck asking yourself if it was a horrible deformation of the material or a brilliant twist by a filmmaker that realized he couldn’t be subtle and succeed so instead he went all out. 

Here’s the truth of it, however: a perfect adaptation of The Great Gatsby isn’t really possible because you truly can’t recreate the past. Fitzgerald’s brilliant writing and nuanced text could never really be translated to the screen as it was because that moment is gone and the mediums are too different. That’s why you should read the book and see the movie. What I want to believe is that Luhrmann was striving for his own green light at the end of the pier, and the only way he knew how to even try to reach it was to go all out. Whether he actually comes close or misses by a long shot is going to be up to you, but I’m a believer in his truly orgastic attempt.

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.