The Great Gatsby arrived in theaters burdened with having to successfully communicate the key plot points and ideas of one of the masterworks of American literature, and that’s not even close to the biggest problem the finished product ended up having. Indeed, as a pure adaptation the film is earnest and loyal to a fault — direct passages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (still transcendent) prose are often ported directly from the novel straight to the film. This creates a bizarre relationship from novel to adaptation — rather than simply interpreting the narrative, it seems writer-director Baz Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce felt they needed to incorporate the reputation of the source material into the film as well. Excerpts of the original text are literally projected onto the screen at points — and by leaning on another medium to harness much of the film’s power, Gatsby‘s standalone impact is diminished quite a bit from the get-go.
I will say this much — I doubt that Gatsby will ever be visually translated quite so lusciously on the big-screen ever again. The lavish interiors of Fitzgerald’s Long Island locations are replicated about as gorgeously as imaginable, and while many outside locations appear to be largely CGI, this is forgivable due to the complexity demonstrated in the work and the total impossibility of nailing 1920’s New York any other way. The costumes, particularly for the iconic Daisy, are glowing and radiant, and when he can hone it in and make it focus, Luhrmann’s camera captures the frenzy and posture of the era uncannily well.
Thus begins one of my larger complaints about the film. He rarely does that. In past films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann indulged in quick cutting and constant reversal of camera angles, but it was always in pursuit of capturing excitement and evoking genuine feeling. For this, his works succeeded. The editing style in Great Gatsby, however, is so incomprehensible and nervous that it robs much of the film of any sense of physical geography — but most importantly, of any sense of pace or patience. Thus, while the film may visually appear as dignified as anything out of Old Hollywood, it moves along with all the nuance and restraint of a jittery, Red-Bull infused little brat whose Xbox controller isn’t working.
Thus, Great Gatsby charges along at a breakneck pace, hitting every major mark from its source material and explaining every significant symbol (the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and the green lighthouse are given lengthy lip-service) — but without much sense of impact or consequence.
The plot is one of the most simple and involving that I’ve ever read, and not even the most bungled cinematic iteration can strip it of all of its power and elegance. Narrated by intelligent Yale export Nick Carraway (a totally flaccid Tobey Maguire), the film details what happens when the well-to-do Long Island couple Daisy & Tom Buchanan (Carey Mulligan & Joel Edgerton with dark, seedy charisma to spare) collide with the elusive, mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, whose eye-popping parties totally embodied the loose spirit of the Jazz Age that Fitzgerald wrote about. Daisy and Jay’s secret romantic past has burdened Gatsby tremendously for years — and when the two strike it up again, all involved parties are sent on a tragic spiral.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s magnetism gives the film much of its existing humanity, but you already knew that. For a man whose career has been built largely on tragic hero roles, it only makes sense that he should play one of the most famous doomed figures in American literature. DiCaprio is equally at home during lavish, impressively choreographed parties and during moments of remarkably heightened emotion and vulnerability. Whether the film is at its most raw or its most artificial, DiCaprio is the momentum every step of the way.
Did The Great Gatsby translate one of the great romantic novels of our time to the screen successfully? Yes. Did it translate the story of one of the great romantic novels successfully? Surely not. By both attempting to tether itself incredibly closely to the text and reach in a distinctly “modern” direction (Jay-Z curated score, and all), helmer Baz Luhrmann overstretches himself and creates a product as phony as the characters its source material condemned. C-