Baz Luhrman's latest movie is still in some  theaters and has so far divided audiences - as expected - and overcome any promising financial plan. Either you love it or you hate it. This is   what usually happens after you watch one of Luhrman's films. Lisa Keys has seen The Great Gatsby and wants to share her musings with us, here at FLY HIGH. Do you agree with her? Did you like Leonardo Di Caprio's Gatsby? 

Having seen the trailer for The Great Gatsby, which plays like a pretentious R&B/Rap video, one can be forgiven for entering the cinema with fairly low expectations of this adaptation of the American literary classic. Was this to be another flashy, CGI laden, piece of film making folly, all style, no substance? It teeters on the brink at times, as the occasionally over the top set plays threaten to drown the heart of the movie in a soup of visual trickery, modern music and rather out of place slow motion violence. However, the film does manage to remember that at it's heart is the 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, constantly referring back to the book almost word for word at times. This, combined with some notable lead performances, serves to save the film from itself.       

Directed and written for the screen by Baz Luhrmann - the man behind the 2001 smash hit musical Moulin Rouge and the 1996 adaptation of Romeo + Juliet. Anyone who is familiar with Luhrmann’s previous outings will recognize the style here. Big, bold, beautiful set pieces, with vibrant colorful cinematography that creates a world all of its own. Here he gives New York the same make over he gave Paris in Moulin Rouge, filling the city it with surreally vivid colors, which in some ways match the seemingly unreal characters of the book. The party scene’s are an extraordinary visual feast, especially in 3D where the explosions of confetti and fireworks add to the brilliantly gaudy set designs. Add to this the ultra-modern rap soundtrack, which simultaneously juxtaposes and enhances the visuals, and you have cinematic feast which at times becomes too much and threatens to bury the films characters.

Powerhouse Lead Performances

The main draw here, however, is not Luhrmann’s direction, but the powerhouse performances of the two main characters. Toby Maguire as Nick Carraway, leads us through the complex story, superbly putting the audience into his place as the observer. Starting out as a bright eyed young hopeful, new to the big city, he gradually transforms to become a cynical alcoholic, beaten down by his experiences. In the title role Di Caprio (Revolutionary Road 2008) excels, clearly enjoying himself as the enigmatic, confident millionaire playboy Jay Gatsby, while all the same time making the character vulnerable and somewhat child-like, allowing the audience to sympathise with a man that might otherwise be hard to like.


The story initially follows Nick Carraway, a Yale University graduate and World War I veteran, who, for reasons unknown, is being treated for alcoholism and anger issues in a sanatorium in the late 1920’s. Carraway begins to recount the events that led him to this point to his doctor, who advises him to write the story down. This forms the narration for the film - which at times is taken directly from the book - as Nick describes how, some years earlier, he came to be drawn into the lavish world of his millionaire neighbor Jay Gatsby, who he describes as “the most hopeful man I ever knew”.

We join Carraway in the summer of 1922, as he begins a new life in New York, becoming a bond salesman and renting a small cottage in Long Island next-door to Gatsby’s multi-million dollar mansion. Gatsby is a mysterious figure, fabulously wealthy, powerful, and famous for throwing wild parties for hundreds of New York’s elite at his opulent mansion house. Yet no one who attends has ever seen the man in the flesh, nor can they be sure where his money comes from.

We catch just a few glimpses of the elusive millionaire, silhouetted in the window, or in the moonlight as he stares out over the bay towards the green light of a marker buoy. It is not until Nick is invited to one of the parties himself that we are finally introduced to our obscure title character. It is now that Gatsby’s interest in Nick is revealed; some years earlier Gatsby met and fell in love with Nick's cousin Daisy - played by Carey Mulligan - who lives directly across the bay, beyond the green light, with her husband Tom - Joel Edgerton - a violent, egomaniac, pro sportsman, who himself is in the midst of a torrid affair.

Befriended by Gatsby, Nick soon gets caught up in the heady 20’s life style, and begins to be taken in by the suave charms of his still mysterious new compatriot. Soon Gatsby convinces Nick to set up a meeting with Daisy and the two begin an affair of their own.

Cracks Beginning to Appear

It is now that the focus shifts away from Nick, as he becomes much more of an onlooker to the tragic events that become the focus of the second half of the film. It is also here the Luhrmann's direction lets the film down. While the fast paced nature of the opening half suites his brash style, when the partying stops and the film settles down to focus on the doomed romance of Daisy and Gatsby, his direction becomes a little heavy handed. The film is non-the-less held together well by the leads, particularly DiCaprio who allows Gatsby's vulnerability to bubble to the surface, as his grand plan to separate Tom and Daisy unravels.

The casting isn’t all faultless however, the female leads are a little one dimensional, with Isla Fisher playing Myrtle - Tom's lover - and Carey Mulligan as Daisy both failing to provide depth to their characters. This is perhaps, in part because Edgerton’s portrayal of Tom so vile and loathsome that you do sometimes wonder how either of them, especially Daisy, ended up with such a man in the first place. Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker fairs better as the confident, single, pro golfer, party girl that introduces Carraway to the 20’s party scene.

Splitting the Audience

This is very much a film of two halves; the first half is a sort of frenetic roller coaster through 20’s New York as we are plunged, along with Carraway, into the heady party scene of the social elite of the time. The second half is a much more deliberately paced, as the parties dissolve away and the true past of the previously elusive Gatsby is slowly revealed.
This film has split audiences and critics alike, and its easy to see why. Richard Roeper, of the Chicago Sunday Times, “amidst all the fireworks and the cascading champagne and the insanely over-the-top parties, we’re reminded again and again that The Great Gatsby is about a man who spends half a decade constructing an elaborate monument to the woman of his dreams.” While in USA Today, Claudia Puig is less complimentary, “The director has fashioned a gaudy long-form music video — all kaleidoscopic spectacle and little substance — rather than a radiant new take on an American literary classic.” When stripped to it’s bare bones, this is a story of hope and unrequited love, that leads to betrayal and tragedy. 

The film never loses sight of this and as such stays faithful to the book. While it is by no means a perfect adaptation, it has enough moments of humanity that break through the glare of the visuals to make it an extremely watchable piece. These moments are, more often than not, provided by DiCaprio and Maguire who make you feel enough for their characters that the directors failings in the second half are forgiven.
If this review has captured your interest and you are yet to read the book, why not get your own copy and encourage your friends to do the same? Copies of The Great Gatsby are easy to come by, as most book stores stock this title and thanks to special offers on purchasing the book, you won't be left out of pocket either. Having read the book individually you can then get together as a book club to discuss your thoughts, as there is bound to be some difference in opinion between you; in much the same way as those who have seen the film have had differing views. You will no doubt then want to watch the film for yourself and see which set of critics you agree with; again there will be much debate between the members of your book club on this, but that's all part of the fun.

1 comment:

Trudy said...

I really should read/see this. I've not done either. Lavish sets are great when it's all part of the story. Maybe it would've been more appropriate to make the sets match the more despairing element of the second half. But I'm just commenting on your remarks!
I have to wonder why they chose to play rap music. Part of the fun in immersing yourself in a period movie is to feel like you are in that era. Rap music would pull me out of the '20's for certain.