Arguably the greatest American literary work, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-age love tale The Great Gatsby has seen four previous film adaptations all of which failed to capture the essence of the famous novella. These bring us to director Baz Luhrmann and his attempts brings his undoubted eye for style and excess to this latest version, reuniting with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since he’s imaginative take on Romeo + Juliet.
At the height of the roaring 20s US writer and stock market wannabe Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to a wealthy town in New York called West Egg. Invited to East Egg, he visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) where he discovers that his mysterious neighbour is one of the most wealthy and famous residents in the whole city. Upon returning home, he finds an invitation to a lavish party next door and he goes along with the intention of meeting the elusive Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and perhaps finding an answer to the questions that have surrounded the man since his sudden appearance on the New York scene.
One of the problems with adapting a famous literary work for film is that there is a lot of subtext and nuance to try and capture in a visual super-text medium. This problem is compounded when the director is known for his visual flair rather than his subtlety. Baz Luhrmann presents the parties and jazz age lifestyles with exceptional beauty, but when it comes to the deep-rooted emotional character content he flounders.
It’s a testament to Edgerton, Mulligan and most impressively Maguire that any of the subtext survives intact. All three provide the audience with enough depth of character to keep The Great Gatsby from becoming sunk by its own excess. The real blessing though is that he had the services of Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to have a far better understanding of his character. His introductory scene is the highlight of the film as he slowly spins to face the camera while literal fireworks explode behind him. It immediately sets up this man as something close to a God and DiCaprio captures the essence of his charisma, while giving him enough edge to cover the truth of things.
Groomed within an inch of his life Luhrmann presents his Gatsby as perfection ready to be slowly, but surely destroyed in front of our eyes and the transformation is executed wonderfully. What a pity then, that the actual meat of the narrative is handled with such lofty disinterest, with care and attention going into the design and certain set-pieces. The pace is off and by the final third you’re keen to see things resolved, which lessens its impact.
The truly interesting question that you take from The Great Gatsby is, if the narrative is about the vacuous emptiness of life and the film leaves you feeling vacuous and empty at the end, is it a success? The answer is yes, but with a clause. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a beautiful mess, which removes any level of subtlety and replaces it with a gorgeously stylised jazz age world accompanied with a booming modern day soundtrack. Like the man himself, it’s enjoyable company, confusing but ultimately very flawed.