Is The Great Gatsby Great Or Is It Simply Ghastly?


(Special thanks to frequent TSL reader and commenter Dr. Jim for inspiring the title of my review.)

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Do you remember when everyone was predicting that Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby would battle it out with The Dark Knight Rises and The Master for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards?

It may be hard to remember but, at this time last year, that’s what a lot of self-styled film divas were predicting.  And who could blame them?  The Great Gatsby was adapted from a great book, Baz Luhrmann was an A-list director, and the film featured actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan.  The flashy first trailer came out and people, like me, were very excited.

And then, suddenly, Warner Bros announced that The Great Gatsby would not be released in December of 2012.  No, instead, it would be released in May of 2013.  This led to a lot of speculation.  Some film bloggers claimed that Warner Bros was just worried that the Great Gatsby would struggle to find an audience if it was released at the same time as other prestige pictures like Lincoln and Les Miserables.  However, I think most people just assumed that the film probably wasn’t that good.  Suddenly, the opulence of that first trailer was no longer something to be celebrated but, instead, it was taken as evidence that Luhrmann had emphasized style over substance.

Last Friday, The Great Gatsby finally premiered on movie screens across the country and we finally got a chance to discover whether Lurhmann’s film was great or simply ghastly.

Before I started writing this review, I debated with myself whether or not I should include a spoiler warning.  You see, I am a F. Scott Fitzgerald fanatic.  I have read and I have loved almost all of his books (even the unfinished Last Tycoon) and I even went through a period where I identified (perhaps a bit too strongly) with Zelda Fitzgerald.  The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books of all time and it’s hard for me to imagine a world where anyone hasn’t read it.

Unfortunately, judging from the reactions of some of the people in the audience at the showing that I attended, apparently I was giving the rest of the world a little bit too much credit.  So, if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, then you really should stop reading this review and go pick up a copy.

And, if you’re still reading this review, here’s your SPOILER WARNING.

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With the exception of a few unnecessary scenes that feature Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a sanitarium, Luhrmann’s film closely follows the plot of Fitzgerald’s novel.  Nick, a recent Yale graduate, moves to New York City in the 1920s.  He has abandoned his earlier plans to be a writer so that he can concentrate on making money as a bonds salesman.  Needing a place to live, Nick ends up renting out a small cottage.  Living across the bay is Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her extremely wealthy and crude husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).  And living right next door to Nick, in a gigantic castle, is the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).

While the Buchanans are a part of the old rich and the American establishment, Gatsby is a much more enigmatic figure.  As Nick discovers, nobody seems to be sure who Gatsby is, where he came from, or how he has made his money.  He seems to devote most of his time to throwing massive parties where he is often nowhere to be found.  However, through the cynical golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Nick learns that Gatsby used to know Daisy and that he’s still madly in love with her.  Gatsby befriends Nick, attempting to use him as a way to get to Daisy.  Meanwhile, Nick also finds himself unwillingly in the position of being Tom’s confidante, accompanying him when he drives into New York to meet with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher).

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To answer the obvious question, The Great Gatsby is not the disaster that so many of us feared but, at the same time, it’s not the triumph that so many of us had hoped for.  Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle.  As with most of his past films, Luhrmann unapologetically embraces style over substance and as such, the film is a lot of fun to watch even though it’s never as intellectually challenging or emotionally captivating as Fitzgerald’s novel.  Whereas Fitzgerald’s novel viewed Gatsby and Daisy with a captivating ambivalence, Luhrmann’s film is content to be a big, glossy soap opera.  As someone who loves the novel, I was frequently annoyed to see how interesting characters like Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan were simplified for the film version.  But, as someone who loves on-screen spectacle, I enjoyed watching The Great Gatsby even if I could never quite bring my heart to fully embrace it.

One thing that The Great Gatsby definitely gets right is the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby.  DiCaprio’s gives one of his best performances here, perfectly capturing Gatsby’s allure while hinting at the insecurity that lies underneath the confident façade.  Carey Mulligan is well cast in the difficult role of Daisy and Tobey Magurie makes for the perfect Nick Carraway.  (That said, you have to wonder if Maguire and DiCaprio are ever going to start aging or do they both have a picture of Dorian Gray hidden away in a closet somewhere.)

Unlike Fitzgerald’s novel, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is not quite great.  But it’s not exactly ghastly either.  If anything, perhaps it will inspire a few more people to read Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

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