Martin Scorcese's 2011 film Hugo was considered a milestone as the first digital 3-D film for "adults," since 3-D is still largely considered a moneymaking gimmick for action and animated movies. Hugo was a critical (if not commercial) success, so the 3-3-D-for-adults experiment continues with Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic, The Great Gatsby. But with a cast of largely baby-faced actors, Jay-Z as an executive producer, and a soundtrack weighted towards hip hop and electronic music, is The Great Gatsby more for younger fans of Luhrmann's more boisterous previous films like Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet? Also, are we still convinced that Tobey Maguire is a good actor? Watch my ReThink Review of The Great Gatsby below (transcript following).
F. Scott Fitzgerald's book The Great Gatsby is considered one of America's greatest novels. It's been adapted for the big and small screen with limited success, with many claiming it to be unfilmmable due to Fitzgerald's conspicuously artsy prose. So there's a lot of potential in the idea of Baz Luhrmann, a director known for over-the-top spectacle, tackling this story and attempting to translate Fitzgerald's words with the color, vibrance, quick pace, and glamor Luhrmann became known for with his period mash-up musical, Moulin Rouge! Or all that glitz and style, in 3-D to boot, could be a distraction to this tragic, uniquely American tale of greed, love lost, pasts hidden, and the emptiness of wealth. And that's what I think happened with the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby.
Set in the roaring 20s, the story is narrated by Nick Carraway, an aspiring Wall Street bond salesman played by Tobey Maguire. Nick rents a cottage on Long Island next to a megamansion owned by Jay Gatsby, a millionaire with a mysterious past played by Leonardo DiCaprio who's known for throwing extravagant parties every weekend attended by the toast of New York. Moulin Rouge! fans will love these early party scenes, which are filled with era-mashing dance music, beautiful period outfits, confetti, and wild dancing. However, they're short-lived, since it's learned that these parties are only thrown to lure Daisy Buchanan, Nick's second cousin (played by Carey Mulligan) who lives across the bay from Gatsby in a mansion owned by her husband Tom, an old money polo star, philanderer, and white supremacist played by Joel Edgerton.
Turns out that Gatsby and Daisy fell in love years earlier, with Gatsby vowing to return from World War I and marry her when he had enough money. To do this, he fabricated a new identity and backstory to hide his humble roots, becoming so consumed with amassing greater and greater wealth that he neglected to return to Daisy, who eventually gave up on him and married Tom. Nick and Daisy's friend Jordan (played by Elizabeth Debicki) help reunite Gatsby and Daisy, setting up a love triangle between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom, with Gatsby urging Daisy to move into his mansion and pretend that her marriage to Tom never happened.
A lot has been made about the fact that The Great Gatsby is a "serious" 3-D movie for adults, and in case you're wondering, yes, it is a distraction, as is a lot of the signature style Luhrmann brings to the film, which is constantly drawing attention to itself and away from the story. The soundtrack -- which features rap, old-timey-sounding covers of recent hits, techno club music, and new songs -- seems more designed to sell the soundtrack than inform the scenes, where you'll find yourself pulled out of a moment wondering, "Wait, is that an old-timey cover of Beyoncé's 'Crazy In Love'?" The 3=D and the widespread use of computer-generated scenery gives the movie a feeling of unreality, which might help if The Great Gatsby was more of a fable. But the story of Gatsby is an idiosyncratic, distinctly American one, whose themes fit with modern times but are not well served by the film.
In many ways, Gatsby embodies the American dream, disowning his past and reinventing himself in pursuit of wealth, ostensibly so he can marry Daisy. But is the dark side of that dream the fact that Gatsby seems to have become consumed by his money, unwilling to give it up or stop pursuing more for the woman he's supposedly amassing it for? Or that the upper crust Gatsby has struggled to emulate are largely portrayed as jerks who contribute nothing to society? Is Gatsby's confidence that Daisy will disavow her marriage a function of naivety, being a romantic, what Nick calls Gatsby's "extraordinary gift for hope", or that Gatsby was successfully able to ignore his own past? Or has Gatsby been in the bubble of wealth so long that he simply expects to get whatever he wants, an indictment of the dehumanizing effects of wealth and power? While DiCaprio does a great job and reaffirms himself as perhaps the most watchable and intense actor of his generation, Luhrmann's adaptation feels like too much style for those wanting substance, and not enough pizzazz for those wanting Moulin Rouge 2!.