REVIEW: “The Great Gatsby” (2013)

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One of my more eagerly anticipated films of 2013 is “The Great Gatsby”. Originally set for a late 2012 release, the movie was eventually pushed back to an early summer opening date. It’s one of several film adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel which was published in 1925. I’m a huge fan of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and recently reread it in preparation for this film. My love for the novel evoked two different reactions leading up to my viewing the movie. First was excitement at the possibilities of a truly great cinematic telling of Fitzgerald’s work. The second was concern over whether director Baz Luhrmann could capture that unique and graceful vibrancy that permeates every page of the novel.

Luhrmann, a 50-year old Sidney, Australia native, is best known for his modern retelling “Romeo + Juliet”, the Oscar nominated “Moulin Rouge!”, and the sprawling epic “Australia”. Each of these films embrace parts of Luhrmann’s distinct style of filmmaking, yet none of these lean as heavily on style as does “The Great Gatsby”. In fact, ‘style’ is a word that seems to find its way in nearly every review I’ve read. Many have viewed the film’s style as its strongest asset while others claim it stresses style over story and the movie suffers for it. To be fair, it’s impossible to talk about “The Great Gatsby” without mentioning its vivid, stylistic presentation. But does its visual grandeur and panache drown out the heart of Fitzgerald’s magnum opus?

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Tobey Maguire & Elizabeth Debicki at Gatsby’s Mansion

Well let me get the style thing out of the way first. Luhrmann’s vision of “The Great Gatsby” is dripping with flamboyance and spectacle. It’s impossible not to notice it starting with the incredibly cool opening credits. But some people have taken issue with the style saying it subverts any heart and feeling the movie may be going for. Let me say I disagree. “The Great Gatsby” is about several things, among those is the decadence and excess of the Roaring Twenties. Much of the movie’s style is spent indulging us into the excesses of the time. It isn’t just style for the sake of style. From the lavish party sequences to the lively speakeasies, the style is used to visually impress but also to draw us into the loose and raucous period. I found it to be very effective.

But for me the best visuals weren’t found in the wild parties with the gyrating dancers and showers of confetti. The movie certainly looked good there. But it looked even better when it was showing off the bustling city. The bright lights, the busy sidewalks, the tall buildings – it’s all beautifully realized through Luhrmann’s camera. We see it as midwesterner Nick Carraway sees it – as a surreal and exotic new world brimming with life. The visuals also shine in two different sequences where Gatsby takes his gorgeous yellow custom car “into town”. There’s clearly plenty of CGI trickery at work, but I felt these scenes were as wild and fast-paced as the lives these characters were living. This film also features one of the more interesting uses of 3D. It’s flashy when it needs to be but often times it’s subtle in its implementation. I wouldn’t say it was completely necessary, but unlike most uses of 3D, here it added to my experience.

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DiCaprio, Maguire, & Bachchan in “The Great Gatsby”

But enough about style and visuals. What about the story? As I said, “The Great Gatsby” is about several things. As I mentioned, it touches on the decadence and self-indulgence of the filthy rich. It exposes the shallow nature of the upper class. It looks at the elation and heartbreak that accompanies true love. It examines the futility of trying to recreate the past. Like the novel, there are so many themes interwoven throughout this story and I think it works here for the most part. This is in large part due to Luhrmann’s faithfulness to Fitzgerald’s work. I can’t say it’s as engaging or as enthralling as the novel, but so much is pulled from the pages that it left me quite happy.

The story revolves around the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby is an extremely wealthy man who lives in an extravagant mansion and is known citywide for his wild parties. No one knows who Gatsby is but everyone has an opinion. Everyone includes Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Gatsby’s innocent and wide-eyed neighbor who also serves as our narrator. Along the way we also meet Nick’s lovely cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her boisterous husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and Daisy’s beautiful best friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). Through Nick these characters are opened up and the mystery surrounding Gatsby is peeled back one layer at a time. But there’s a red herring neatly tucked away in all of this and the story ends up about something much more satisfying. To look at this story simply as a tale of a mysterious rich guy is to miss the greater point.

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Mulligan & DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby”

Luhrmann’s directing is a key part of the movie but the film would never work without its great performances. The tone of each performance is unique in that it not only captures the characters of 1922 but also an older style of acting. DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Gatsby whether he’s being the handsome, wealthy, but secretive party host or tackling some deeper emotions later in the film. Carey Mulligan is also good as Daisy and Tobey Maguire, an actor I’ve never been excited about, really surprised me. I loved Joel Edgerton as Tom. It’s said Ben Affleck was initially sought after for this role but I think Edgerton knocks it out of the park. But it’s newcomer Elizabeth Debicki who’s a real scene stealer. I gravitated to her each time she was on screen and I kept wishing she had more screen time.

Many people have had numerous problems with the movie and I would love to say they were wrong. But while I like the film more than many, it does have a few shortcomings. While I did feel the movie had heart, I don’t deny that there is a coldness throughout the picture particularly in a key relationship. This leads to a brief lull halfway through. I also felt the movie would be better if they had decided to include the romantic tension between Jordan and Nick that we get in the novel. It would give the movie more warmth and provide both characters with more to do, especially Jordan. I also felt the soundtrack was all over the place. When it’s playing the jazzy music of the time or a variation of it things are great. But then we’ll get sudden injections of Jay-Z rap tunes which feel terribly out of place. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind that but I found it odd and distracting.

Baz Luhrmann may be trying to capture the vivacity of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel through his visual style, but I think the story itself retains plenty of that for my taste. In fact I had a lot of fun with “The Great Gatsby”. It respects its inspiration by sticking to the story and some really strong performances help ensure that this isn’t strictly a visual spectacle. This may not be a perfect movie but it’s certainly a very good one and I found myself wrapped up in it. It’ll never supplant Fitzgerald’s novel as the greatest telling of this mesmerizing story, but as far as adaptations go, this one really succeeds.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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53 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Great Gatsby” (2013)

  1. Cool! It is on my list–I really love Luhrmann’s visual style (R&J was amazing!) and I am looking forward to see what he does with this.

    I hear that he is a true Fitzgerald fan and wanted to try to capture the narrator’s voice, that most said was impossible to do successfully–glad to see that may be true. 😀

    Great review! Later!

    • Thanks! While its not as enthralling as the book, Luhrmann captures enough of Fitzgerald’s voice to make it work. I loved that Luhrmann stayed so close to the novel. It was one of the most pleasant surprises for me. And the performances are fantastic.

    • I’m a huge fan of the novel. Luhrmann stays very close to it so I can see where someone would struggle with the story if they struggled with the book. For me it was a thrill that he stayed so close.

  2. Good review Keith, and it’s great to see a much more measured approach to analyzing how they did this thing. I myself was not so much of a fan since I thought most of the performances came off really wooden and hard to get into, but you give the film’s lavish costume/make up more credence and I would have to say I’d agree with that since the crazy style was not there just for the sake of it being stylish. It spoke to the flourishing twenties’ mentality; glad you gave that more thought than I did. haha

    • Thanks for the comments. Interesting take in the performances. I thought they were fantastic. I think the deliver them in a way that’s not only emulating the people of that time but also of early movie actors and actresses. Very interesting approach.

      • yeah honestly that’s a great point as well, i didn’t really think of that aspect as much. . . The cast did seem to adopt a more classical style of acting in this movie, and that aspect shouldn’t be overlooked by me along with the many who are maybe saying this film was bad haha.

        touché, keith. touché.

      • I think your criticism is completely fair. They are using a classical style of acting but I can easily see where that may not work for some people. In a way it’s a stylistic gamble and I think it worked for some but not for others.

      • Yeah, I am glad to see you did. I have been reading more bad ones than good, so I have decided (probably like you did) to pass my own judgment when the time comes.

      • As I mentioned somewhere else, don’t go in thinking it’s a movie about a mysterious rich guy who throws lavish parties. That’s a very small element of the movie. There’s really so much more that Fitzgerald is saying and I think Lurhmann captures a lot of that.

      • 🙂 oooh interesting. I think I shall re-read the book this week sometime first, then be all super ready for it! The movie is visually stunning to look at, I must say that!

  3. Nice review. I’m still writing up my review, but you liked this more than I did. I was though very impressed with DiCaprio’s performance.

    • Very mixed reviews. I think people are taking a wrong approach to this film. It’s not a film about a mysterious rich guy. There’s so much more going on. I’ll be quiet. Just approach it with a much broader eye.

  4. So glad you enjoyed it as much as I did, Keith! You’re absolutely on target about the visuals and style…especially showcasing New York. It made New York a retro masterpiece to feast the eyes upon, and it goes without saying the parties were as decadent as expected.

    Putting all complaints aside from critics, it’s undeniable that the acting went above and beyond our expectations. Leo IS Gatsby…he sold it for me while awkwardly and desperately trying to orchestrate tea with Daisy and finally meeting up with her drenched from the rain…he exuded a sense of nervousness and urgency that I didn’t get from Robert Redford’s Gatsby…he made me really CARE about his plight. And Edgerton as Tom…how brilliant was he?? That smarmy laugh of his was perfect! And I agree that Debicki as Jordan was mesmerizing, but very underutilized. I have a huge girl crush on her now.

    I’m happy you appreciated it, because I too am a huge fan of the novel 🙂

    • I’m with you 100%. And as I said elsewhere, so many focus on ‘the story of a mysterious rich guy’. That’s really a smaller part of Fitzgerald’s greater point and indictment. I do wish the iffy romance between Jordan and Nick had made it into the film.

      Gatsby is really a cog in a much bigger machine that this idea presents. I hope more people recognize the real message and focus of the movie.

      • What I’ve noticed are two types of complainers: those who have never read the novel and can’t appreciate/understand the film and those who have read the novel and don’t think it translates on screen. All I can say to them is ~womp womp…

  5. Very nice review. I agree that the style did actually make the film better and I really can’t imagine a better Gatsby than DiCaprio. I thought the film’s best performance was by Edgerton, he was absolutely perfect in my opinion. The movie is by no means flawless, but I was happy to find how faithful it was to Fitzgerald’s book.

    • It’s a good (not phenomenal) movie both visually and narratively. I can easily see how some may be turned off but I think it’s a rare instance where understanding the main focus of the novel gives the film more weight.

    • Thanks dude. I gotta disagree though. I think there’s a lot more under the fresh coat of paint than some people give it credit for. The red herring I alluded to is a big part of the film. There’s a much bigger look at the time period and people rather than Gatsby. That really worked for me and it was the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel.

  6. Most here seem to be saying the same thing, the style can be off putting but it also works in many places, and the performance by DiCaprio makes the movie the film it wants to be. I quite liked it and was impressed on a visual level and with the depth of character we get from Gatsby. That’s something I did not get from the only other version I’ve seen the 1974 Redford film. This movie left me caring about the flawed but compelling Mr. Jay Gatsby.

    • Exactly! Great point. The movie does make you care for Gatsby and Leo’s performance is a big reason for that. But I also love the deeper themes that run under the surface and then bursts out in the last 20 minutes.

      As for the style, other than the sudden jarring bursts of Jay-Z, I thought it really worked. I think the style throws us into the decadence on several occasions and I found that to be very effective.

  7. Fantastic review Keith! I love the way you set up your points here and though overall it’s more style over substance, I do agree the style is not completely without merit and it’s quite effective in parts.

    Oh boy, I’m glad Affleck didn’t get the part as Tom! Agreed that Joel Edgerton knocked it out of the park, though can’t say the same about Mulligan as Daisy. I mean she’s just ok to me, but not as good as I had expected. I think Debicki is the scene-stealer, hope she’ll get more prominent roles because of this.

    • Thanks for the great comments Ruth. I appreciate your words. I really do think there’s more substance underneath the surface of this movie. It’s a pretty stinging indictment of everyone that surrounds this Gatsby character. Hedonism, wasted wealth, decadence, excess, and the shallowness of self-centeredness. It all really works for me.

      But please don’t think I’m just disregarding your point. I do think there are moments where the style drowns out the points Fitzgerald’s story is making. That’s a shame because if they could’ve kept that under control this would have been a near perfect movie to me.

  8. I think you dug it a bit more than I did Keith. I didnt think the drama had enough elbow room amidst all the glitz and glamour. 😦 I’d have it more at a 3 I think. I like how you tip the hat to those of us that had issues though there at the end, nicely played. 😉

    • Completely fair criticisms. I think the glitzy decadence plays perfectly with the theme of wealthy, self-centered excess. But I can see where some would have a different reaction to it.

  9. Awesome review! The way you described the visual side really makes me want to see it, but I’ll probably wait for DVD since Stoker is finally releasing in my city and I really want to see that one.

    • Thanks so much. Anxious to hear your thoughts on it as well. It’s a film that’s easy to pick apart. It’s also a film with a main focus and theme that’s easy to miss.

  10. Glad that you liked this ‘Gatsby,’ Keith. I must say that I have some issues with it – most are just minor expectations that weren’t exactly “met” – but it was all in all fine. I’m currently writing my review (and by the way, I made the move to WordPress!).

    • Very nice. Hope you enjoy WordPress. I can see where people wouldn’t respond to Gatsby or have issues with some things. It’s a very “different” movie.

    • The reviews have really been mixed haven’t they? Most I have read have thought it was okay but nothing great. I think it’s really good but a few things keep it from greatness.

  11. I probably won’t see this anytime soon, but I’m glad it lived up to your expectations.

    Also want to add that sometimes directors will use anachronistic music to provide a direct link between the timeline of the film and another, in this case the present. It’s an interesting trick I’ve seen used to good effect a number of times.

    • My expectations were pretty high for this. For the most part it delivers although maybe not as much as I had hoped.

      I’ve seen the music technique you speak of used pretty effectively as well. For me this wasn’t one of those instances. I found it to be jarring and inconsistent with the scenes. There are times when the mixes work but each instance of Jay-Z music pulled me out of the scene. That’s one example of his stylistic approach that could have been executed better.

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  14. The visuals were nice, but I really thought the story wasn’t as captivating as it could have been and the music didn’t work for me either.

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