The Great Gatsby

© 2013 Ray Wong

F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby has been made into TV and movies many times. So why does director Baz Lurman wants to make another one? Well, Lurman had a vision of modernizing it like he once did with Romeo & Juliet (or Moulin Rouge, which was based on the opera La Boheme). The result is a visually stunning, if only emotionally handicapped and stylistic jumbled, piece of art.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a struggling writer who goes into the bond business just to makes ends meet. He rents a small cottage on Long Island that is wedged between some grand mansions of "new money." Across the bay is a posh neighborhood of "old money," including Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who married drug store tycoon Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

Nick's neighbor is a mysterious rich man maned Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws a lavish party every week. While there are many stories about Gatsby, no one really knows him; not many have actually met him. That changes when Nick gets an invitation personally from Gatsby to attend one of his parties. The two soon become good friend.

As Nick gets to know his rich neighbor, he realizes that Gatsby seems to be hiding something -- his outer shell and lavish lifestyle are just a facade. Soon Nick understands why Gatsby is so eager to make friends of him. It turns out that Gatsby knows Daisy from five years before. And through Nick, Gatsby wants to reconnect with Daisy, who is deeply unhappy with her philandering husband.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) is in great form here, all dashing and charming and youthful as the Jay Gatsby. Don't get me wrong, DiCaprio's Gatsby is very different from Robert Redford's, and sometimes I do feel that DiCaprio is too youthful and slight to play the iconic role. As the iconic narrator Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire (Brothers) fits the bill rather nicely as the cockeyed, naive, quiet observer who is swept into Gatsby's world of mystery, deceit and amazement.

Carey Mulligan (Shame) surprisingly is the weakest link here, despite her good track record. Her Daisy is lovely and beautiful, of course, but I can't help but feel somewhat disappointed by her passive portrayal that feels rather flat. Her chemistry with DiCaprio also seems off -- one only yearns for the same chemistry between Jack and Rose in Titanic. But alas, no such luck here.

The supporting cast is dutiful, however. Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty) makes a good Tom Buchanan, what with his handsomeness that is part smarmy and part pitiable. Isla Fisher (Confession of a Shopaholic) is suitably seductive and vulnerable as Buchanan's mistress, and Elizabeth Debicki (A Few Best Men) is memorable as Daisy's best friend Jordan.

The screenplay by Lurman (Australia) and Craig Pearce (Charlie St. Cloud) does follow Fitzgerald's novel, while the writers attempt to upgrade and modernize the story to make it less about the time period and more about the universal themes. The result is a hodgepodge of ideas and patchwork of execution that takes  until the second act to jell. Lurman also depends heavily on narration; this may have worked for the book, but in cinematic form it feels clunky and surprisingly impersonal. It takes the audience out of the story and remind us that we're "reading" what Nick Carraway has to say.  Besides, Nick himself is an unreliable narrator, given his own affinity toward Gatsby. Again, that works well in literary form, but in a movie, it is much less effective.

Not to mention the character of Daisy is underwritten here. Granted, this is really Jay Gatsby's story, but Daisy is such an important figure that I just don't feel any emotional attachment to her. Right off the start she seems like a shallow, materialistic woman whose affection for Gatsby seems misguided or disingenuous. Perhaps it's also a flaw in the book, but Daisy simply isn't a very likable character -- again, that may have worked better in the novel as Gatsby is the hero, but in the movie where Daisy is one part of a trio, she falls short as a character.

Visually, the movie is stunning to watch. Lurman pulls out all the stops to make this modernized version a visual feast. While not quite as arresting as, say, Moulin Rouge (the CGI effects are rather distracting), one can't argue that this a Lurman in his top form as a visual stylist. And I think that's my problem. The movie feels off at the beginning, trying to be too many things to too many people. It's not until way in the middle does it find its footing. By then I feel like I've been watching two different movies -- one that is chaotic and ADHD (much like Moulin Rouge to be honest) with pop music that stands out like a sore thumb against the 1920s backdrop; and one that is grand and fluid and epic (much like Australia) that is at times superbly lyrical and tragic.

That's a shame. Lurman is a great talent and has a great cinematic eye. He needs to stop directing his own writing or write to direct. Lurman has never be a strong writer, and he should just focus on the direction and leave the writing job to a great screenwriter who can put all those unique ideas together. As is, The Great Gatsby is sorely disappointing despite a lot of potential, a great cast and a great production. It just isn't great. 

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Debicki
Director:  Baz Lurman
Writers: Baz Lurman, Craig Pearce (based on novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for violence, sexual content, smoking, partying and language
Running Time: 142 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 9

Total - 7.4 out of 10.0 

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