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Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is a Good Adaptation of a Great Book

May 20, 2013

By John C.

The Great Gatsby PosterDirector Baz Luhrmann’s much talked about adaptation of The Great Gatsby finally came to theatres last weekend, becoming a genuine hit with audiences, in the wake of receiving a mixed response from many critics.  After missing the screening, I finally caught up with the film during the week.

Like many people, I truly believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the finest novels ever written, a work of prose that is still just as relevant after close to ninety years.  The story’s quiet dissection of the excessiveness of the 1920s might seem to clash with the marketing behind the film, but this is a good adaptation of a great book that is carried by an excellent cast.

The film opens with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) talking to a psychiatrist (Jack Thompson), recounting the time he spent living on Long Island in New York, making his money selling bonds after the first World War.  His house is across the water from his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws lavish parties every Saturday night.  When Nick is invited to one of the gatherings, he soon discovers through Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) that Gatsby is hosting the parties in hopes of recapturing the attention of Daisy, his great love from before the war.

The first sign that this is going to be a modern take on the classic novel is the thumping opening of “No Church in the Wild” that plays early in the film, setting the tone for the rest of the soundtrack, produced by Jay-Z.  Much has been made of the selection of songs in the film, and they generally work well with the scenes, although it can be strange to hear the modern sound of “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” alongside the images of a classic band.  But the Jay-Z songs are actually quite effective, with the modern rap music alluding to the jazz that would have been considered risky in the 1920s.  The moving Lana Del Rey track “Young and Beautiful” is another highlight, beautifully playing over several key scenes.

The first few scenes take some getting used to, as our eyes adjust to the way that the camera swoops in and out of the scenery and between the actors, with some of the quick cuts causing a dizzying effect.  The first party scene at an apartment in New York with Tom and his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) is overdone, like a modern music video as channelled through the 1920s.  This is one of the times when the bombastic use of music and jumpy editing just feels excessive, but it’s also shortly after this scene that the film really finds its footing as a faithful adaptation of the source material.  The digital trickery and bold soundtrack choices sometimes even work well to illustrate the story.

The 3D is done well and comes alive during the party scenes, but the quieter moments where the film really excels don’t really need to be seen in the format.  Many audiences will be drawn in by the flashier scenes, but these give way to the vulnerability of the characters hidden beneath, which in itself is an interesting allegory to what F. Scott Fitzgerald was saying in the novel.  The parties are a symbol of false identity, and Baz Luhrmann uses them to lure casual viewers into the story.  These elements add up to a film that is often strikingly original and sometimes overly stylistic to the point of distraction.

But this is also a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the beloved classic novel that gets things absolutely right in terms of the cast.  Jay Gatsby is a character who is bound by his past, holding on to a part of himself that he has already moved away from.  He has created a false life for himself that allows him to live as a persona, hiding behind money and glamorous parties that serve as a facade for the vulnerable man underneath.  Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant in the role, with his small nuances in dialogue and facial expressions perfectly displaying these multiple layers beneath the outward appearance and irresistible smile of the character.

Nick Carraway is a man enamoured with the world of Jay Gatsby, before growing disgusted with the selfishness of the rich world around him.  Tobey Maguire plays him as a wide eyed upstart, who becomes broken by what happens in his life.  Daisy Buchanan is another complex personality, because by the end of the story the decisions she makes are actually kind of selfish, and Carey Mulligan nicely displays both the emotional elements and underlying coldness beneath the character.  Although he is somewhat underused, Jason Clarke is excellent as George Wilson, playing a big part in the finale.  The rest of the cast is equally strong in their roles.

As the romance turns to tragedy in the admirably filmed last act, the story is handled in a respectable and faithful way, leading up to an emotionally affective rendering of the final few scenes and the masterfully written narration.  These are some of the best moments in The Great Gatsby, allowing the characters to truly come alive off the page.  Although I respectfully disagree with a few of the stylistic choices, for the most part I do admire what Baz Luhrmann has done with the source material.  This is a good movie with excellent performances that serves as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a great book.

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