There comes a time in a director’s career when he or she may face one of the seemingly impossible cinematic feats: to make the movie better than the book.
Director Baz Luhrmann accepted this challenge when he signed on to direct a new theatrical take of “The Great Gatsby." F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is considered an American literary classic, a staple in high school English courses. To tamper with greatness could spell disaster for the film and disappoint fans. With this in mind, Luhrmann took the details that made the novel so successful and generously applied them to his film.
The result? Beautiful visuals, awkward editing and overblown symbolism.
The adaptation is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who recounts his adventures on Long Island to a doctor while at a sanatorium. Using word-for-word passages from the novel, Carraway describes his move to New York to try his hand in the bond business. There, he reconnects with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and learns his next-door neighbor is none other than Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the secretive millionaire known for his lavish parties and fantastical reputation. Little does Carraway know that Gatsby acts this way in hopes of winning back Daisy’s love despite five years of separation and her marriage to another man.
Hoping to live up to its hype, the movie tries to be as fantastic and flawless as Gatsby himself. Servants open doors and move about the house like choreographed dancers. The grand landscapes of New York City and Gatsby’s estate look pristine. And the parties are a flapper’s dream, with the vibrant outfits and music for dancing (although the occasional rap songs seemed a bit out of place).
Unfortunately, the flawlessness stops with the visuals. Reminiscent of “Moulin Rouge,” Luhrmann’s excessive cuts put cinematic emphasis in all the wrong places. The opening scenes fly by with exaggerated zooming and cutaways that disturb the flow of the script. Yet during the climactic standoff between Gatsby and Daisy’s husband, the camera comes to a virtual standstill. Without the dialogue, it would appear no different from any other scene.
The film was also keen to draw on, and overemphasize, some of the novel’s best traits. Carraway speaks Fitzgerald’s words like poetry, which fans of the book will appreciate. Yet seeing them additionally written on the screen is distracting and unnecessary, no matter how artistic the font is. Likewise, the symbolisms that added such value to the novel do not translate as well on screen. We can only see the green light so many times before its significance starts to fade.
Luckily, the lead performances keep the plot comprehensible even when the camera is having a spaz attack. Few (if any) actors would be better suited as the suave, slightly obsessed Gatsby than DiCaprio. He and Maguire enliven the unlikely relationship between Gatsby and Carraway with their occasional comic relief and intimate conversations. Mulligan also gives a strong portrayal of Daisy and her struggle to choose between Gatsby and her husband.
There is potential for the film to be marginally close to par with the novel. Unfortunately, it gets lost in the pomp of Luhrmann’s chaotic editing, which proves what literary purists have been saying all along: Only the book can put the “great” in “The Great Gatsby.”
Stars: *** (out of 5)