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The Great Gatsby

by Leonard Maltin
May 10, 2013 12:15 AM
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Frankly, I was dreading Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but I wouldn’t have anticipated that this master of gaudy excess had a genuine desire to do justice to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. It’s the struggle between the filmmaker’s natural instincts and his better self that makes the results so wildly inconsistent.

Leonardo DiCaprio-Carey Mulligan-680
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

The movie bears all of Luhrmann’s trademarks, along with a panorama of patently artificial CGI landscapes, the likes of which he couldn’t execute when he made Moulin Rouge a decade ago. What’s more, they are rendered in 3-D, a needless appurtenance that left me with a headache. The ultimate Luhrmann sequence, a gargantuan party in Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, provides an excuse for scores of elaborately costumed dancers, performers and extras to make whoopee to a blend of 1920s music and hip-hop numbers by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter (who also receives credit as one of the movie’s executive producers). As in Moulin Rouge, it seems a shame to expend so much effort when the camera never settles on any one aspect of the picture long enough for us to absorb it. Oddly enough, I didn’t mind the hip-hop tracks, as they seemed to capture the reckless energy of the roaring ‘20s; it’s the rapid-fire editing that wore me out, all the more so in 3-D.

But when the movie gets down to business, it takes on a completely different tone. In fact, as Gatsby acolyte Nick Carraway (nicely played by Tobey Maguire) begins his narration, words form on the screen in an effort to salute the beauty of Fitzgerald’s language.

Most of the characters are well cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is ideal as the enigmatically appealing, self-invented Jay Gatsby, with Carey Mulligan as the woman of his dreams who gave up on her own ideals long ago. Joel Edgerton is appropriately harsh as her bumptious husband, Tom Buchanan, while Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke have little to do but look the parts as the ill-fated Myrtle and George Wilson. Likewise, newcomer Elizabeth Debicki fills the visual description of a high-living 1920s celebrity like Jordan Baker. I can’t say the same for celebrated Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan, who’s an odd choice to play the Jewish wheeler-dealer Meyer Wolfsheim.

Tobey Maguire-485
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

The weight of the drama falls on DiCaprio and Maguire, and they come through splendidly. It’s the movie itself that seems to run out of gas at some point, especially as Luhrmann drives home symbolic moments with the subtlety of an ambulance siren. (If I saw one more closeup of the oculist’s billboard peering ominously over George Wilson's garage and its working-class neighborhood, I was going to scream.)

How, then, to sum up this fourth big-screen rendering of The Great Gatsby? I would call it a mixed bag. It’s better than the lumpy 1949 version with Alan Ladd, and not as bland as the 1974 production with Robert Redford, which was scripted by Francis Ford Coppola. (We can’t discuss the most tantalizing version, made in 1926 when the novel was new; there are no known copies of the film extant.) It certainly isn’t dull, and it has many virtues. But in the end, no filmmaker has been able to capture the elusive qualities that have made the book an enduring masterpiece. Baz Luhrmann and his collaborators (including screenwriter Craig Pearce and the director’s wife Catherine Martin, who designed both the sets and costumes) have painted a colorful canvas with enough incidents, attractive people, and lively music to hold an audience’s attention. But it’s no match for the novel, which creates a mystique all its own and dazzles the reader with its matchlessly graceful writing. That’s something that film, for all its qualities, cannot duplicate.


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  • Casey | May 13, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    I had no idea that a 1926 Gatsby silent had been made. But what agony to know that it's lost. I'll have to find out more about it, which of course will only add to the sorrow. Still, that's what we do, isn't it...

  • Jason Hyman | May 11, 2013 3:50 PMReply

    I can agree with most of Maltin's views here. I hated the fast cut editing style of the beginning of the movie, though I understand it was supposed to reflect the fast 20's lifestyle it could've been done a few seconds slower. The second half of the film did its job, that is to give the story, but it seemed like I was watching a completely different movie at that point. Luhrmann's problem seems to be in proper pacing, it's like he just couldn't find the right speed to tell the story sometimes. I think the 3D adage's were unnecessary and the Jay-Z soundtrack seemed very out of place at times. Still, the highlight of the movie for me was Dicaprio and Maguire. I liked the way they played their parts in this one very much, I only wish there were more scenes with them together. My final verdict, It was pretty good. I liked it, but I doubt I'll ever watch it again.

  • mike schlesinger | May 10, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    It's been established that when watching a 3-D movie, the eye needs about 4 or 5 seconds to readjust to the next shot, which would pretty much preclude the ADD editing that Luhrmann is known for. (Even Michael Bay toned it down for TRANSFORMERS 3.) But if he's still cutting ultra-fast, it's no wonder you got a headache.

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