The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite novels. I even own the Penguin mug. Normally, I guess some people would be quite apprehensive seeing a film treatment of a favourite book, but I went in with an open mind to see what Baz Luhrmann would do to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work. It’s worth adding that I’m not someone who expects the film to be like the book. If you want that, just read the book. Let the film do something interesting. Interpret that book in another way. Show me another side.
If you want a plot summary, go to Wikipedia. But essentially, seen from the perspective of young writer Nick Carraway, Gatsby is the classic warning for the great dream, lamenting money – both the old money and the new money – over values. It’s about class and aspiration and passions. The book is also full of beautifully formed paragraphs.
The film is visually stunning, and somehow manages to capture those themes perfectly. It’s over-the-top, done not for the sake of it, but to genuinely get across the heady days of the early 1920s in a way that modern audiences might better understand. Sartorially, things are also wonderful; having seen the Brooks Brothers collection online, I was quietly nodding to myself as I noted various tweed patterns and bow ties.
Anyway, that aside, there are some wonderful touches – geeky film-making towards the start, evoking the 1920s in style and contrasting it with modern notes. There’s also an effort to make value of the fact that Carraway’s character is a writer, but I’m never quite sure that works well in film. Sure we get lots of pictures of typewriters and nice calligraphy, but ultimately filming a manuscript just isn’t that interesting. It’s as if Luhrmann is conscious of how good a writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was, and wanted to pay homage to that fact. A couple of my favourite lines were groaned out by Tobey Maguire, who plays Carraway, and who manages to zap the magic from Fitzgerald’s words.
Luhrmann goes for an explosive set up, wonderfully alluding to Gatsby before we really see him, and then going to town on his lifestyle when we finally do. Lots of good shots of New York. Lots of cool hip-hop jazz remixes. I like this harsh mix of traditional and contemporary. But the second half, once we get into the nitty gritty of the Daisy, Tom and Jay Gatsby’s relationships – all of which is acted superbly – it still feels a little bit of a let-down. When Luhrmann can’t hide behind the scenes of excess, the pay-off doesn’t quite come through.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a good actor. I’ve got a lot of time for what he’s done over the years, and he lends Gatsby’s character charm, awkwardness, viciousness and packs a decent emotional punch. Likewise, the supporting cast of Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton were strong. You feel stuff, which is the point of it all. Even Maguire, when he wasn’t narrating, gave a solid sense of bewilderment.
So, all in all, I liked it. There’s a lovely tone and colour and mood throughout. Great cinematography and good acting, too, but it’s let down by a screenplay that petered out into meh.
You should totally read the book.