I went into The Great Gatsby with mixed expectations. I predicted that Leonardo DiCaprio would be able to capture the enigmatic character of Gatsby like none have before him (he did). I also had high hopes for the rest of the cast, and I knew that Luhrmann would deliver, if nothing else, a visually captivating take on New York during the raucous Jazz Age in his signature overblown, more-is-more style. My expectations for the soundtrack, full of Top 40 artists and hip hop songs that couldn’t possibly belong in a drama set in the 1920s, was incredibly low. In short, all of these expectations were met for better or worse, and my overall take on the film was a resounding “meh.”
Let’s get the worst part out of the way first – that soundtrack. Admittedly, it didn’t interfere with the story as much as I feared it might. The most tense dramatic scenes thankfully weren’t punctuated with Jay-Z or will.i.am (they were actually mostly without any music at all); there was, however, a scene underscored by Beyonce singing “your love’s got me looking so crazy right now” that made me literally cringe. It was even more of a shame, because the sequences leading up to that moment and after it – Gatsby and Daisy’s meeting over tea at Nick’s house – were great. I get that having these artists “compose” music for the soundtrack was an attempt to make everything a little bit more hip, but when the characters are speaking lines word-for-word from an 80-year-old piece of literature it just takes the viewer right out of the atmosphere.
Speaking of that atmosphere, Luhrmann’s decision to focus on dizzying 3D effects and a color palette similar to the Candyland in Wreck-It Ralph gave the whole film a feeling of fakeness. So many of the sets were heavily artificial (the film was shot in Luhrmann’s native Australia) that it actually became odd to see the actors standing in a real, physical location. The costumes and set design, however, were up to the standards of his previous work. It was undeniably cool to see Gatsby’s infamous parties come to life on the big screen, complete with spot-on costume designs courtesy of Luhrmann’s wife and collaborator Catherine Martin.
I’m still partially undecided on some of the cast, because a handful of them seemed undecided on whether they wanted to be in this movie or not. None of the actors did a bad job, but some definitely grasped their roles better than others. Carey Mulligan wasn’t sure whether Daisy should’ve been a happy-go-lucky debutante or a manic-depressive, and she swung abruptly between the two while not being very convincing as either. Tobey Maguire as the blank slate Nick Carraway was just that – a blank slate. He did a great job at getting across that he really was an outsider and perpetual third wheel to the whole culture that Daisy, Tom and Jordan fully embraced. His narration, though, was not only completely unnecessary but flat and phoned in. Joel Edgerton was also strong as Tom Buchanan, the most obvious villain in the story. He pulled off the role of the complete scumbag; racist, indifferent to his wife’s feelings and bitterly angry at Gatsby’s “new money” and everyone who has it.
As I mentioned earlier, DiCaprio absolutely nailed the role of Gatsby and will be the one that all of the future iterations (because we know there will be plenty) will be compared to. He perfectly portrayed Gatsby’s fake pompousness and, as the story moves on, his insecurity and almost frightening obsession with the one thing his money can’t buy. Even his verbal tic of “old sport” didn’t become as grating as it easily could have. He completely owned the role, which makes the movie much easier to recommend. Fans of the book will undoubtedly be proud of his portrayal of the titular character.
The Great Gatsby v. 2013 is worth seeing. It’s entertaining and has a solid pace, making its almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime seem shorter. The cast is strong overall, and it brings the novel to life in some new and surprising ways. With a modernized script, less reliance on swooping cameras and CGI, and a more fitting soundtrack it could have been a really great adaptation. The pieces are all there, but they’re hard to find when Luhrmann focuses so hard on the surface of every scene and rapidly moves on to the next, not leaving enough time to dig too far into anything.