Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby Review: If you think he didn’t get the book, you didn’t get the movie

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is worth the whole damn lot


The Great Gatsby | 2013 | 143 minutes | Dir. Baz Luhrmann | Warner Bros.

 For The Great Gatsby, Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s fifth full- length movie, Luhrmann follows a formula.  It’s the same formula he used for 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and 2001’s smash musical Moulin Rouge!

The formula goes like this:

  • Narrator begins movie with a melancholy reflection
  • There’s a big overhead shot of the entire setting
  • The first half of the movie is all breathless glorious romance, glittering dance numbers, rollicking buffoonery and an otherwise good time,
  • The second half is all heartbreaking drama and dark consequences,
  • And the same narrator that began the movie ends it the same way, writing in a notebook or typing on a typewriter.  The film ends sadly and silently.

Lurhmann’s formula rocks.  It works well for the romance genre, and especially well for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale about the dangers of excess in Prohibition- era America.  Moulin Rouge! told the story of La Boheme, and Romeo + Juliet  detailed Shakespeare’s famous lovers. If all Baz does for the rest of his career is dress timeless love stories in spectacular costumes and an updated soundtrack, I’ll jump for joy.  The Great Gatsby represents a return to Baz at his best.

Production designer Catherine Martin outdoes herself outfitting the Jazz Age hoi palloi.  The soundtrack, an eerie mashup of 20’s ragtime and modern hip- hop, punctuates the film’s hyper- reality (although I got a little tired of hearing Jay-Z’s voice and seeing no Jay-Z).  The camera work is less dizzying than it is in Moulin Rouge!, but it includes all the zooms, pans, jump cuts, wide shots, and unconventional motifs that made its predecessor such a roller coaster ride.  Lurhmann himself parallels the freewheeling Jazz Age  with today’s blowout party culture, and hopes the film’s timely release will set off a stream of Gatby- themed soirees.

I’ll spare you the plot synopsis you’ll probably get with every other review of The Great Gatsby.  If you went to high school in America or watched the trailer (or the 1974 Robert Redford version), you already know the story.  What’s important is that for his adpatation, Luhrmann not only follows Fitzgerald’s plot, he makes it better.

Gatsby Characters: Nick, Gatby, Daisy, Tom
Nick (Tobey MacGuire), Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton)

Nick Carroway (Tobey MacGuire) becomes less of a transparent wallflower and more of a developed character.  Gatbsy (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s shady past comes to light.  Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) morphs from debutante gold digger into fragile heroine who really does love Gatbsy for more than his money (Nick’s famous snippet about Daisy’s “voice full of money” is noticeably absent from the script). Tom Buchanan, impeccably played by Aussie Joel Edgerton, goes from ironclad bigot to the third side of two love triangles, extracting empathy from the audience.  Fleshing out certain aspects of Fitzgerald’s characters deviates from the original text, but I thought it made the plot more compelling and the finale more dramatic.

As for critics who thought Gatbsy glamorized Prohibition without alluding the to Great Depression downfall: Did they even watch the movie?  I thought the film classified old money and new money perfectly, and did a great job pointing out that the new money screwed over the American economy.

But the Australian- filmed movie doesn’t perseverate on American history.  It’s about the same thing as the book:  the eternal optimism of Jay Gatsby.  It’s about a person who can hope against hope, even in his darkest hour.  It’s about how hard it is to hope when the world falls down around you, and how inspirational that beacon can be.  Even though Gatsby succumbs to the underbelly of organized crime, he operates under incorruptible motives.  Love is the greatest rich of all for Gastby.

We need a Gatsby right now.

That said, if you thought something was amiss, it was probably Leo.  DiCaprio acted in Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet, back when he was 20 and made a decent romantic lead.  Leo worked hard to put his heartthrob days behind him.  Maybe it’s his creepy introductory smile, maybe it’s his accent, but Leo has us wishing that Robert Redford could magically de- age 30 years and just play Gatsby again.

Lurhmann pimps out the 20’s in diamonds and lace, but Fitzgerald’s timeless message prevails.   It’s easy to say The Great Gatsbychokes on its own excess“.  It’s harder to admit that it doesn’t.

This Gatsby is worth the whole damn lot.  


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