Like the tragic characters and stories that light up the screen and wrench up our hearts, The Great Gatsby 2013 film adaptation is almost more devastating for how great it could have been. Baz Luhrmann’s film is a very, very good one. But it is not great.
The performances are excellent. Reviews have been somewhat mixed on Leonardo DiCaprio, but I think he gives us a perfect Gatsby, who pairs beautifully with the always-exceptional Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, rounded out by the superb Tobey Maguire, in one of his first noteworthy roles in years.
Luhrmann has achieved something few film adaptations of classic literature have; he has taken a work, the F. Scott Fitzergerald novel, which is of course rich with symbolism and meaning, and maintained all these complex themes that your high school English teacher beat into you, without feeling remotely forced or condescending. He allows the audience to reach their own conclusions, both about the characters (particularly Gatsby and Daisy, whom polarize audiences in both their novel and film representations) as well as the iconic symbolism (THE GREEN LIGHT, T.J. Eckleberg).
This is where The Great Gatsby succeeds the most; when taking the source material at its most shallow surface, the story could be represented just as carelessly and giddy as the characters pretend to be. Yet, behind every line and every action, there is an air of tragedy, and Luhrmann knows how to bring that out to great effect.
Luhrmann also does what he usually does best, through the noticeably anachronistic soundtrack. The setting may look like the 1920s, but it sure doesn’t sound like it, with an urban soundscape rich with beats by Jay-Z and a haunting love theme by Lana Del Rey.
While Luhrmann employs many of his old tricks, they do not feel as over-the-top or cinematically overwhelming as they could be taken in other films. I love Moulin Rouge with all my heart, but the fast editing and goofy humor could understandably turn some audiences off; The Great Gatsby feels so much more grown-up, as a Luhrmann film free of the cartoonish qualities that may have dampered his prior works.
Where the film disappoints though is through its pacing, especially towards the end; the scenes, while visually stunning and often emotionally compelling through the stellar performances and soundtrack, but so much of film’s motion is through mood, not action, which weighed me down by the end of this 2 1/2 hour epic. There are also some odd choices with visual effects, which you will likely know when you see them (re: the film’s narrative structure).
These slight disappointments make me hesitant in my review of this film; much of it, particularly the scene when Gatsby and Nick Carroway make their deal, and the montage of Gatsby and Daisy reunited, are excellent and still stick with me long after leaving the theater. These kinds of moments are Baz Luhrmann at his best, and I wish The Great Gatsby, for all the time and effort put into it, was as sharp as these glorious scenes in the middle were.
It is still a very good movie and I recommend seeing on the big screen in gorgeous, colorful 3D. I will likely be revisiting The Great Gatsby and am anxious to see how my opinion develops as my relationship with this film continues through repeat viewings.