The Great Gatsby (2013)

Bored back ceaselessly into the past

How much one gets out of The Great Gatsby depends, in large part, how swept away one can be by some historically glitzy and energetic party scenes — even if the emphasis on such scenes undercuts their thematic purpose. For that seems to be the main vision that Baz Luhrmann brings to the film. It’s not too surprising, given that his films have typically thrived on spectacle and sledge-hammer emotional cues over any sort of narrative subtleties.

But, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, typically regarded as one of the great American novels, or at least one of the novels read by high schoolers across the country, is rife with ironies and double-layer meanings and wistfulness. These are the exact things that require a deft screenplay, which has never been one of Luhrmann’s strengths. Whereas Elvis benefits from Luhrmann’s broad-stroke mythologizing, Gatsby becomes more shallow.

Not helping matters is the structure of the story, which grows thematically denser but rhythmically slower as it builds to its conclusion. This is great for a novel, but trouble for a bombastic, glitzy film like Gatsby, which opens with a rolling boil but climaxes with a simmer.

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag: none of the leads are catastrophically bad, but neither do any feel pitch perfect. My least favorite might be Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan; she seems as lost as the surrounding film, unsure how much nastiness to pepper in with her doe-eyed sweetness. DiCaprio is up to the task of playing the title character, but I never quite believed Gatsby’s vulnerability and fear of being discovered as a fraud under the surface. Tobey Maguire completes the trifecta of lead stars, with an especially gawky take on narrator Nick Carraway.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, is more of a resounding success. I’m especially fond of Joel Edgerton’s prickly take on Tom Buchanan and Elizabeth Debicki’s turn as Jordan Baker.

The film adds a framing story of Carraway writing the Great Gatsby book as a memoir while in a mental hospital. This segment is a catastrophe. For one, it feels like a shameless attempt to recreate the subjective artifice of Moulin Rouge! by indicating everything we see is through the lens of the narrator, but without having the content to match that idea; basically, it allows Luhrmann to hand-wave any lack of subtlety or sentimentality as being part of Carraway’s bias, which simply does not fit the story. Second, this structure exists largely to highlight some of the iconic lines from the novel, as we see Maguire scrawl them on to a sheet of paper. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…” You think Baz would miss a chance to ham up such a memorable line?

Whereas each of Luhrmann’s previous films had very clear mission statements and purposes to accompany their delirious visual identities, The Great Gatsby seems to never have gotten past “glitzy parties with extra helpings of romance and tragedy.” It is pretty clearly Lurhmann’s weakest film of his first six even if it has some exciting richness and energy from moment to moment.

Is It Good?

Not Very Good (3/8)

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2 replies on “The Great Gatsby (2013)”

I cannot condone this review even if I can’t exactly say you’re wrong in your takeaways. I’m not sure if it misses the point of the book, which has been a perennial complaint; I do think it should be a dizzyingly seductive and overwhelmingly galmorous as Gatsby intends and as Nick (this Nick anyway) perceives, even through a half-hearted attempt at cynicism, and the creation of something completely hollow and fake in pursuit of something hollow and fake, in vain attempt to soothe emotional wounds that are hollow but real, works utterly for me. If it’s a bad adaptation, it might be the best bad adaptation, and it’s still my own personal favorite Luhrmann. Might be my favorite Maguire and favorite DiCaprio and favorite Mulligan? I think she does a good job as an empty dress that’s more idea than person but with just enough person there for it to be sad in its way. (Anyway, it’s weird how closely my second fave Luhrmann, Elvis, mimics the bombast/letdown structure of this, too. It makes sense, as they’re getting at a comparable sensation of watching a dream and the dreamer get destroyed.)

I’ll probably revisit this one at some point; I suspect my negativity towards it is a bit exaggerated. It’s not my favorite of any of the three leads for sure (though I’m not sure I have a distinct favorite Mulligan).

I like your thought on the parallels in structure between Elvis and Gatsby — I hadn’t thought of that, but I think you’re right. I’m not sure why it clicked more for me in Elvis. I just like the energy and tone a lot more, and I think that one does some really special stuff with the editing, especially the first half, to hit upon some profundity.

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