Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Egerton
Baz Luhrmann’s long-awaited adaptation of The Great Gatsby might not be as great as you’d hope – and it’s bound to offend purists – but it’s still a wildly enjoyable romp through the decadence and waste of 1920’s New York.
The plot here remains largely unchanged from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel, and from any other of the now innumerable adaptations you may have seen. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to New York to begin a new career as a bond salesman. He moves into a humble home, just across the bay from his rich cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). His small abode sits in the shadow of the gigantic estate of his neighbour, the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Every weekend, Gatsby throws gigantic, impossibly indulgent parties at his palace-like home that seemingly everyone in New York attends. But while everyone knows of Jay Gatsby, no-one, including Nick, actually knows anything about him. This all changes when Gatsby sends Nick a personal invitation to one of his parties and makes Nick an unusual request involving his cousin: the very lovely, but very married, Daisy.
What separates Baz Luhrmann’s version of this classic story from the others is his unfaltering sense of style and flair. Surely no director is better equipped to capture the heady excess of the roaring twenties quite like Luhrmann, a man whose previous films have all revelled in their own indulgence. The film is a visual treat, capturing the opulence of the era in all its glory while the soundtrack, which blends 20’s jazz with modern hip hop, is a delight.
While Luhrmann is a perfect fit for the narrative’s propulsive early stages, he unfortunately seems to gloss over much of the novel’s moral ambiguity in favour of a more straightforward love story. His Gatsby is far more ‘heroic’ than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original creation and while Daisy is still utterly inert and vapid, she too is somewhat more evangelised. George Wilson (Jason Clarke) in particular gets the short end of the stick, the endless struggle that is his life reduced here to buffoonery and anger. Only Joel Edgerton’s Tom truly captures the complexities and paradoxes of his literary counterpart.
This all means that when the party’s over and the hangover begins, The Great Gatsby really begins to drag. The great performances and visual design always keep things interesting but the sheer force of will that is the film’s opening third takes its toll and by the final act you feel more worn down and broken than the film’s increasingly hysteric characters.
A common levelled at Jack Clayton’s famous 1974 adaptation of the Great Gatsby (starring the always watchable Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) is that while it was faithful to the source material, it never truly came alive in the same way Fitzgerald’s writing did. Luhrmann’s version has the exact opposite problem; it’s vibrant and engaging but somewhat oversimplified. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is good but the wait for a truly great adaptation continues.