The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitsgerald is a book that I didn't appreciate when I had to read it in high school. I didn't read it again in college when I had it assigned and still got a respectable "B" on the paper. I didn't really appreciate how amazing it is until I met my wife. She's a high school English teacher with a degree in English. She's reads hundreds of books and The Great Gatsby is her favorite of them all; her passion through conversations we've had about it has infected me and made the book one of my favorites as well. Excitement was high for seeing the latest attempt to make this into a feature film and after it was over our emotions were unexpected but disapointed wasn't one of them.
Director Baz Luhrmann kicked his career off with a bang with 1992's Strictly Ballroom. No one saw it back then but when he made Romeo + Juliet in '96, everyone was so impressed with his aggressive, modern take on the classic by Shakespeare, that they went back to see Ballroom and were equally as blown away. Then he made Moulin Rogue which was a combination of the two previous films and it instantly became a cult classic and a commanding film. But the elusive Luhrmann must be sensitive to criticism since his next film, Australia, was a box office and critical failure in every way. That was five years ago and since then he's done nothing but short art films that no one sees. The Great Gatsby is his hopeful big comeback but you can tell while watching it that he's gun shy.
If there's one thing that can be said about the film it's that it has a flawless cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is Gatsby, Tobey Maguire is Nick, Carey Mulligan (Drive, An Education) is looking as gorgeous as ever as Daisy and Joel Egerton (Warrior, The Thing) is totally hatable as Tom. Everyone showed up to the set to play ball and they all do. It's also not the subject material that the script is based on that holds the film back either. One of the most enjoyable things about it is that the narration is taken right from the pages of the book and Fitzgerald's poetry is read very well by Maguire. It's Luhrmann who holds this film back.
When Luhrmann creates a scene that is beautiful chaos and a party that visually can cause seizures, he's at his best. When there are scenes where simply dialogue must be given without all the frenzy to distract, he really seems to suffer in Gatsby. The film is 143 minutes long and it feels every second of it, which surprised me. It's not like The Great Gatsby is full of action but it's also not a slow book either. Luhrmann's pacing once the exaggerated celebrations are over slows down to a sluggish crawl. Hopefully you're into the story and characters enough by then that you stay with it.
Another choice that Luhrmann made that seems to be what everyone is talking about is Hip Hop being used in the soundtrack. I can assure you that it's not gratuitous and I think it suits the film perfectly. These characters were filthy rich, some of them criminal, people that threw extravagant parties attended by thousands of people at indescribally giant mansions in the 1920s. If that's not a perfect parable for the Hip Hop culture, I don't know what is. It feels completely rational to use that music and sparingly is exactly how it's used.
The Great Gatsby is a film about the heart of the American Dream; how it's corrupt and a lie and appreciating the beauty in that. There have been many attempts to make it into a movie but I think this is the only one that captures the true feelings of living that culture at that time as well as the core emotions you feel when reading the book. It's not perfect but I think that's understandable since making it flawless would be impossible. Fans of the book will notice some of their favorite parts missing but that's to be expected for any book-to-film translation. It's a project that was handled with passion and precision by a director who may not have been ready to get back behind the wheel of that by yellow car just yet. The Great Gatsby (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B+