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Baz Lurhman's American Nightmare

Updated on October 10, 2013

There’s a perception out there amongst critics that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece novel, The Great Gatsby, cannot be captured as a film. Those people would be incorrect, though it’s fair to see why this perception exists. Since the books release in 1925, there have numerous film adaptations of the novel, all of them ranging from good, to mediocre, to comatose in the case of Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation that somehow wasted the talents of Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Francis Ford Coppola (who wrote the screenplay). This year, excess king himself Baz Lurhman decided to release his own version of Gatsby, a film that, while showing flashes of competence, ultimately reinforces the thought that Gatsby cannot be made into a great film. What else would you have expected from the guy who made Australia and Moulin Rogue?

Set at the beginning of the roaring 20’s, The Great Gatsby follows one summer in the life of Nick Carraway (Tobey Macguire), who has moved to New York to work as a stock broker. Soon after, he’s befriended by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), his rich, mysterious charismatic neighbor who pines for Daisy Buchanon (Carey Mulligan) his former girlfriend and Nick’s cousin who lives across the lake with her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). With Nick’s help, Gatsby works to earn Daisy back, a path that will lead to consequences that not only affect him but Nick, Daisy, Tom and married couple George (Jason Clarke) and Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), Tom’s mistress.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby

Gatsby ultimately is a film of two half’s, the first of those being the closest to Lurhman’s style, as well as the worst. Those who are familiar with Lurhman’s work know him to be a sucker for dramatic visuals, rapid cuts, bombastic atmosphere, modernizing his stories and having his protagonist recount the story in flashbacks (which he used to poor affect in Moulin Rogue). All of these elements work to compromise the film; the party scenes at the beginning are cut so quickly and are so over the top that we are more likely to laugh at it then get sucked in, while the modern day soundtrack to these parties (put together by Jay Z) distracts more than it blends in, save for Lana Del Ray’s soothing and beautiful “Young and Beautiful”. The only thing worse is the decision to have Nick recount the story while he is in treatment at an asylum sometime in the future, a plot point not in the original novel. This perhaps could’ve worked if done correctly, but the technique is forced, silly and ultimately just feels unnecessary.

As said earlier though, Gatsby is a film of two half’s, and as bad as the first one is, the second half is surprisingly quite good. Once the parties die down and the film begins to focus on the Gatsby/Daisy/Tom love triangle, the film finally begins to feel like the great story that it is. The best scene also occurs here, where the love triangle finally comes to a boil in a Manhattan hotel room during a hot summer evening; regardless of how you feel about the film, the tension in this scene is so well harnessed that you’ll remember it afterwards. The second half of Great Gatsby may not be enough to ultimately save the film, but it’s so much better than the first half that you’ll legitimately wonder if someone else had taken over for Lurhman midway through filming.

Leonardo DiCaprio, whose career was jump started 17 years ago in Lurhman’s out of control Romeo + Juliet, gives what could be the best performance of his career here. Unlike Robert Redford, whose performance as Gatsby in Clayton’s version was so lifeless that it made Hayden Christensen look accomplished, DiCaprio brings life into the character, capturing his charisma, obsession, loneliness and hope in every scene he’s in. If the film had been better, DiCaprio could’ve snagged an Oscar nod.

Sadly, other than DiCaprio, the rest of the cast is either given nothing to work with or is terrible. Tobey Macguire does the opposite of Leo and gives perhaps the worst performance of the year; it seems at time that Macguire has no idea how to perform as Carraway (one of the most underrated characters in literary history) and if anything only shows how great Sam Waterson was as Carraway in the Clayton film. Carey Mulligan does what she can with Daisy, an always complicated character to essay, but she’s done no favors by Lurhman and co screenwriter Craig Pearce, who seem unsure whether they want to make Daisy more sympathetic or not. Same goes for Joel Edgerton, who seems to be playing a Saturday morning cartoon villain, and Jason Clarke, who is great but gets no more than five minutes of screen time. Only newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, playing Daisy’s best friend Jordan Baker, is able to transcend her limited screen time (a shame as Jordan was an important character in the novel who is marginalized here). She’s breathtakingly beautiful and captivating in every scene; I almost wish Lurhman had taken a chance and gone with her as Daisy instead.

Tobey Macguire and Elizabeth Debecki as Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker
Tobey Macguire and Elizabeth Debecki as Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker

It’s clear upon viewing Great Gatsby that Lurhman has a great appreciation for Fitzgerald’s novel; he just doesn’t seem to understand it. Underneath the surface, Gatsby was always a commentary by Fitzgerald on the social scene that surrounded him at the time, not a celebration as Lurhman seems to believe. More than anything else, that is the film’s downfall; by focusing on the lifestyles, Lurhman missed the most important thing about Gatsby; its heart and hopefulness. The film is worth seeing for DiCaprio’s performance, and fans of unintentional comedy will greatly appreciate the laughs Gatsby generates during its first half silliness. Beyond that, the best thing to say about Lurhman’s Gatsby is that is shows that, with the right director and the right lead, someone one day can eventually capture the spirit of the novel in the way Fitzgerald imagined it.

Rating: 5/10

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