Movie Review: THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)
This is not your father’s GATSBY.
The new movie version of THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) by writer/director Baz Luhrmann, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious Jay Gatsby, possesses more energy and pizazz than the stoic 1974 Robert Redford version, highlights the bawdiness of the 1920s with colorful flair, and really does a nice job getting to the heart of what’s behind one Jay Gatsby.
With a modern soundtrack, quick editing, and vibrant colorful photography in eye popping 3D, love it or hate it, this GATSBY was built with modern audiences in mind, and to that end, it’s an English teacher’s dream in that it’ll certainly titillate reluctant readers and at the very least pique their interest in the hullabaloo of all that is Gatsby. To this end, F. Scott Fitzgerald would be proud of this version, because it captures what he wanted to say and it does so in a way that is true to the spirit of the novel. After all, the novel The Great Gatsby is full of despicable characters who are tainted by money and live in another world because of it, sordid affairs, and ultimately, murder.
At the end of the day, all you really need to know about the new version of THE GREAT GATSBY is that it tells a good story. It breathes life into one of the most famous literary characters of the twentieth century, Gatsby, and answers the question asked in so many sophomore English classes across the country, “what is it that makes Gatsby ‘great’?”
THE GREAT GATSBY is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), as he looks back upon the time he lived next door to a certain Jay Gatsby. It’s the roaring 20s, and Nick moves to New York to make his name in the world, working in the bond business. When he visits his affluent cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), one of Nick’s college buddies, a former sports star and a member of one of the wealthiest families in the country, he meets their friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) who asks if he’s met his neighbor Gatsby, a name that causes Daisy to flinch.
When Nick attends one of Gatsby’s huge parties, he listens to all the sordid theories as to who Gatsby really is and how he got all his money. Some even suggest there is no real Gatsby, as no one has ever really seen him. But soon after Nick does meet Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and finds him much younger and more normal than he expected.
Gatsby invites Nick to lunch, and there introduces him to his gambler friend Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. Nick is clearly confused by Gatsby and is not sure what to make of him. Gatsby is a teller of tall tales, yet his stories seem to be true. Their friendship is tested when Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy, which Nick agrees to do.
And thus the story shifts to its love story, and in the process answers all of its relevant questions. Just who is Jay Gatsby? Where did he come from? What’s his story? Who will end up with Daisy? Is Gatsby a murderer? THE GREAT GATSBY has no shortage of intrigue.
Purists will probably hate this new version of THE GREAT GATSBY, but I loved it. I loved its energy, its vision, and its performances. This doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have flaws. It does, but it also has an awful lot going for it.
My favorite part of THE GREAT GATSBY is that it does such a powerful job bringing the characters from the novel to life.
Tobey Maguire makes the perfect Nick Carraway, which is a good thing, because he pretty much has the most screen time in this one. He’s every bit as good as DiCaprio in this movie. Maguire does a nice job capturing the emotional gamut of what Nick goes through in this story, from his fascination with the times, with the glitz and wildness of Gatsby’s parties, to the pure disgust he feels the longer he knows these people, to the affection he ultimately feels towards Gatsby as he recognizes that in spite of everything, there is a hope about Gatsby that cuts through all the muck.
Carey Mulligan makes a beautiful Daisy Buchanan, and she’s much more successful at bringing this character to life than Mia Farrow was in the 1974 version. I’ve often wondered when reading the book and seeing the 1974 film, just what the heck did Gatsby ever see in Daisy? Mulligan answers that question with her performance, as she comes off as absolutely adorable. She also plays her emotions perfectly. We see and feel her angst at the key moments when she must decide between her husband Tom and Gatsby. Her performance rings true and we know exactly what she’s feeling.
The film does steer her away from being a woman of money, as she’s portrayed in the novel, and leans more towards her affectations towards the actual men in her life, Tom and Gatsby. It’s clear in the novel that her choice is based on money and the life of comfort she’s grown accustomed too. Here in the movie her choice seems to be made based upon her feelings for the men, rather than the wealth they possess.
Joel Edgerton is also excellent as Tom Buchanan. As much as I like Bruce Dern, I’ve always felt he was miscast as Tom in the 1974 version. Here, Edgerton plays him with all his physical ferocity and privileged confidence. He makes Tom a very unlikable fellow, not because he’s an evil man, but because his wealth has given him the power to do whatever he damn well pleases, and he does just that. Edgerton nails Tom Buchanan, and it’s a much more satisfying performance than his role in the recent re-imagining of THE THING (2011).
The supporting cast acquits itself well. Elizabeth Debicki makes an icy yet captivating Jordan Baker, a woman who Nick seems to love and hate at the same time. He dislikes her personality, yet he can’t stop looking at her or wanting to be with her.
Isla Fisher is sufficiently sultry as Myrtle Wilson, the woman Tom Buchanan is having an affair with, while Jason Clarke is solid as her clueless sad husband George. Amitabh Bachchan makes for a very memorable Meyer Wolfsheim, and he makes you believe that this is a guy who could have fixed the 1919 World Series.
But what about Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby?
It goes without saying that DiCaprio is excellent as Gatsby. The guy’s a terrific actor who I continue to admire the more I see his performances in the movies. He just might be the definitive Gatsby. It’s hard to knock Robert Redford’s performance, because even though I don’t think he truly captured the Gatsby from the novel, he put his own stamp on the role, and it worked. Redford’s Gatsby made sense, and I bought into the character even though I recognized it was different from the man in the novel.
DiCaprio’s interpretation is much closer to the way Fitzgerald wrote the character. He brings that incredible sense of optimism and hope with him, which conflicts with his smooth fast talking business persona, of a man who may or may not be involved in very shady business transactions. There is also no denying his love for Daisy, and the passion DiCaprio brings to the role might be the most satisfying part of his performance. His Gatsby is a passionate man, much more so than the character in the novel, and certainly more so than the guy played by Redford.
And he succeeds in convincing us why Nick would call Gatsby great. In spite of all the underhanded things Gatsby was involved in, Nick recognized that there was a sincerity about the man that drove him forward, that lifted him above others in similar positions. Behind all the disreputable rumors was a man with a singular purpose, and that purpose had to do with love, not greed or power. When Nick tells Gatsby at the end that he’s better than all the others, he means it.
Baz Luhrmann does a masterful job directing this movie. He captures so many of the novel’s key scenes and key moments. Gatsby’s parties are spectacular to behold, and the scene in the apartment with Tom, Myrtle, Nick and their guests is a keeper. It captures so well what Nick was feeling during these moments, a combination of extreme discomfort, embarrassment, and drunken ecstasy.
The confrontation scene where Gatsby and Tom fight over Daisy is also potent, especially once the power shifts from one man to the other, which for me, always catches me off guard because I always expect the plot to go one way, and inevitably it goes the other.
The screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce should be applauded for bringing this story to life. No doubt, THE GREAT GATSBY will be compared to Luhrmann’s previous efforts, ROMEO AND JULIET (1996) and MOULIN ROUGE! (2001) I found GATSBY less gaudy than MOULIN ROUGE! and less innovative than ROMEO AND JULIET in terms of visual style, but GATSBY is a more handsome production than either one of them. GATSBY also does a better job of telling its story.
But the film isn’t without flaws. Once it shifts to its love story, it actually loses some steam. This is probably inevitable, since the film really flies early on, with scenes at Gatsby’s parties, the gathering at Tom and Myrtle’s, and the highly intriguing and kinetic lunch date with Meyer Wolfsheim.
There are also a few awkward moments where the film’s visual style gets in the way of its story. The worst of these is Gatsby entrance. It’s done in such an overdramatic gawky way that both DiCaprio’s glowing expression and Maguire’s look of awe and surprise nearly made me laugh out loud. What should have been a neat concise introduction is blown up into a silly goofy scene that is nothing short of comedic.
I suspect a lot of folks will have trouble with the modern soundtrack, but I think it worked surprisingly well.
THE GREAT GATSBY is a visual delight. I saw it in 3D and enjoyed it, but I suspect it would have looked just as good in old-fashioned 2D.
It succeeds in breathing new life into a classic novel, and it does it with respect and reverence for the source material. It also succeeds in capturing the essence of Jay Gatsby, so convincingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a self-made man of wealth for one singular purpose, for the love of a woman, and even though many question his motives and his dealings, it’s clear that through it all he has a sincere heart and a noble purpose, and we know this because the conscience of the story, Nick Carraway, brought to life in a brilliant performance by Tobey Maguire, gets to know him, grows to understand him and ultimately likes him.
THE GREAT GATSBY is an exceptional movie, well worth your time, and makes a worthy cinematic companion to one of the most intriguing and well-written novels of the twentieth century.