Who’s in it? Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson)
What’s it about? At the height of the Roaring Twenties, Nick chronicles his mysterious “new money” millionaire neighbor Jay Gatsby’s attempt to win back Daisy, the love of his life, over the course of a summer. But it’s been five years since Gatsby and Daisy have seen each other, and she’s now married to “old money” brute Tom.
What’s good? Before I say anything about the movie, I must first admit that I’d never read the Great American Novel upon which Gatsby is based until two weeks ago. So the details of the story were extremely fresh in my mind when I saw Luhrmann’s take, and I was surprised at how closely his vision matched what I had in my head while reading. I must also state upfront that I love, love, LOVE Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (also with DiCaprio) as well as Moulin Rouge!, and so I had high expectations for Gatsby. I was hoping it would be just as over-the-top and surreal as those films, but it wasn’t.
But since we’re first talking about the movie’s strengths, the most obvious one is the cast. There’s no weak link in the mix, but DiCaprio and Mulligan did the best job of transforming themselves into their characters. Gatsby is outwardly confident yet at the same time insecure, and despite being filthy rich and well-traveled, he’s still incredibly naive. Daisy shows glimmers of being able to think for herself – until she realizes it’s just easier not to. Everyone exudes a slightly cartoonish quality, but that’s exactly what I felt the characters were like in the book, too.
And as expected, Luhrmann didn’t disappoint with the overall look and feel of Gatsby. The tones, shadows, and dazzling colors – especially during Gatsby’s lavish party scenes – were extraordinary. Much ado has been made about the Jay-Z-produced soundtrack, and for the most part I thought it fit the movie … or at least what I was expecting from the movie. If anything I wish the soundtrack had been handled more like Moulin Rouge! with contemporary songs used in a tongue-in-cheek way in the background. Though I suspect others might have HATED that, huh?
What could’ve been better? I had three main beefs with the movie, the first being that the 3D was totally pointless, so if you have the option, see it “the normal way.” Secondly, Luhrmann was obsessed with shots of a billboard that was mentioned in the novel and – in the novel – carried a certain symbolism. But the fifth or sixth time the billboard popped up in the movie, I was like, “OK, WE GET IT. BAZ LIKES THE BILLBOARD.” It was weird.
Lastly and most importantly, the biggest difference between the novel and Luhrmann’s adaptation came at the end, and this change helped to defeat the entire point of the story. I won’t give anything away in case there are a few people out there like me who’d somehow managed to avoid reading Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in high school, but I will say that the book wasn’t meant to be a love story, but rather a tragedy about trying to recapture the past and the social politics of the time. Those messages were pretty much totally lost because of Luhrmann’s decision to focus on Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy at the expense of the novel’s final chapters.
The bottom line: I’m glad I read The Great Gatsby before seeing its latest incarnation on the big screen, because Luhrmann did the source material a disservice by playing down the “cautionary tale” aspect of Jay Gatsby’s existence. But if you read the novel – and especially if it’s one of your favorite classics – then I think this version is worth seeing simply because it succeeds in bringing its characters to life in a gorgeous, unforgettable way.
Redbox movies featuring the cast of The Great Gatsby: