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Review: Luhrmann's 'Great Gatsby' Tramples The Novel's Intentions

May 12th, 2013 9:26am EDT

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic big screen adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” is like drinking cheap booze to excess. It’s unpleasant going down, and even worse coming back up, but when the experience is over, you’ll feel much better.
Speaking of bad alcohol, Luhrmann’s film is a nasty homemade concoction. With his take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, he creates anachronistic moonshine that doesn’t mix effectively with the story’s Prohibition Era setting. His predilection for combining the old and new isn’t surprising, considering previous brazen films “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet.” However those stylistic blends were arguably more fluid.
This time, Luhrmann’s cocktail is particularly egregious with its wild soundtrack and filmmaking choices. Perhaps that's because the yarn takes place during The Roaring Twenties, a decade so well-known for its own unique flair, that it shouldn't need to be jazzed up with elements from other time periods. It is called The Jazz Age after all.
If gaudy anachronism was a crime, Luhrmann would be doing serious time for "The Great Gatsby." His superfluous filming in 3D uses carte blanche for multiple bizarre image juxtapositions so that they “pop out” at you. Mostly it just looks corny, especially when words from our narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) come right off his typewriter onto the screen. Luhrmann also employs annoyingly dramatic CG shots where we take on the perspective of a biplane diving down to join the action on bustling New York City streets. The worst infraction of this nature that Luhrmann commits though, is his use of modern songs by Jay-Z and Beyonce in the soundtrack. While the artists’ music is fun on its own, it does not fit well at all into the 1920s setting.
The other major reason Luhrmann’s version struggles is that he carelessly plays fast and loose with a cherished narrative in American literature. By crafting a large, ostentatious spectacle to make this story accessible to modern audiences, he tramples all over the book’s original intentions.
Instead of being a cautionary tale about the American dream gone awry, Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” is closer to a grand fairy tale where Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a tragic hero, and a faultless victim. Additionally, the movie completely lacks the subtlety and ambiguity that make the book engaging. In fact, Luhrmann seems entirely unaware of the definition of the two words. Maybe he was absent in school on the days when they were taught?
Luhrmann literally beats you over the head with every metaphor in the film, especially the green light that taunts Gatsby outside the home of his love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and his creepy surveillance from the shadows. Also, Luhrmann goes to great lengths to explain everything, including Gatsby’s shady business deals and the events leading up to *SPOILER ALERT* his unfortunate demise. The oversimplification is insulting to your intelligence, particularly if you’ve read the novel.
All of that bitching aside, “The Great Gatsby” actually does a couple of things right. First, the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role is genius. The committed actor is the perfect person to portray a bull-headed, ambitious, self-made man like Gatsby. In the part, DiCaprio captivates you by wearing the character’s intense emotions and fragile stability right out on his sleeve. You know something will go wrong to topple that equilibrium, but you can’t help hoping it won’t. And even though you know DiCaprio is Gatsby going into the movie, Luhrmann does a great job of teasing the wealthy socialite’s identity. When you finally do get to meet the man, he receives a wonderfully epic entrance.

Another thing that Luhrmann recreates effectively are the giant weekly parties thrown at Gatsby’s mansion. Their scale and choreography is incredibly impressive, along with their entertaining guests from all walks of life. These shindigs and DiCaprio’s spirited performance unfortunately aren’t enough to rescue this movie from its numerous missteps adapting Fitzgerald’s book.
Like a bad night of drinking, you’ll no doubt spend the next day regretting your decision if you see “The Great Gatsby.” Although at least this poor choice doesn’t come with a hangover; just an unnecessary hole in your wallet from wasting your time on the 3D mess. It’s something you can easily avoid however, by skipping it entirely or at least waiting until the movie is available to watch at home.
My Grade: C-...as in Careful! Consume at Your Own Risk!

Related: Baz Luhrmann, The Great Gatsby, Starpulse Exclusives, Movies, Movie Reviews

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