Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, like most film adaptations of classic literary texts, is going to disappoint most viewers. This is because unlike The Remains of the Day or The English Patient, The Great Gatsby is and has been taught in high school English classes throughout the country. I remember when I was writing a final paper on Gatsby for my high school English class, my father recalled a memory of the day he handed in his own Gatsby paper back in the 1970s and a student sitting next to him handed the teacher a shoddy half written, half typed paper. Therefore, so many of us will purchase a movie ticket with mental images of Nick Carraway, Daisy, and Gatsby himself fully developed in our minds. That's why it is important to divorce our former conceptions of the novel from our viewing experience and focus on the film as its own work separate from the novel. Only when we have successfully achieved this mental separation can we fairly applaud or criticize the film.
The greatest strength of Luhrmann's Gatsby lies in its casting. Tobey Maguire is perfectly cast as the film's narrator and protagonist Nick Carraway. Skinny and bookish, Maguire brings a childish curiosity to the role, which perfectly juxtaposes DiCaprio's strapping and quietly intense Gatsby. Maguire's large eyes constantly dart about in every scene as he observes the chaotic interactions of the aristocrats around him. Instead of acting, Maguire often reacts since his character generally watches the drama unfolding before him. DiCaprio nails the role of Jay Gatsby. When we are first introduced to him, he turns his face to the camera in slow motion as George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" reaches its crescendo. Champagne glass in hand, DiCaprio brings to the screen the dashing poise F. Scott Fitzgerald strove for in the novel. As the film progresses, Gatsby's shell slowly cracks and the loneliness and humanity of the man is brilliantly expressed upon his face. DiCaprio becomes Gatsby, and the result is thrilling to watch. Carrie Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan and Elizabeth Debicki's Jordan Baker are equally dazzling to watch on the big screen.
Yet, the film's aesthetic qualities overpower these excellent performances. What stood out to me more than anything in the film was the costume design; I felt like I was sitting through a celluloid version of a Brooks Brother's Spring Collection catalogue. During the notable scene when Gatsby throws shirts from his massive closet all around Daisy and she cries over lost time, I found myself not concerned with the troubles of the characters on screen; rather, I wondered if I would buy a button down shirt in that particular shade of yellow. During the pivotal scene when Gatsby tells Carraway about his past, the film focuses entirely on the yellow car zipping down the street. Did I focus on Gatsby's dialogue? No, I was too busy attempting to avoid dizziness from the rapidly sweeping camera movement accompanied by an anachronistic film score.
The main problem with Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is that it hovers in a gray area between outrageous spectacle and melodrama. The film is too colorful and loud and splashy to be taken seriously, yet the story and dialogue do not probe deeply enough for a fully realized cinematic interpretation of the novel. I loved Luhrmann's previous film Moulin Rouge because it was a full blown spectacle that relished in all its outrageousness. Gatsby, however, awkwardly shifts between a dark meditation on the underside of the American Dream and one long Studio 54-esque bash complete with rubber swimming pool floats.
While I found the sum of the parts to be a letdown, I did find one scene in the film to be utterly compelling. It is the scene when Daisy, torn between the passion she feels for Gatsby and the life experiences she shared with her husband Tom, chooses to remain with her husband. Each character in the scene becomes immersed in their subsequent roles: DiCaprio brings great frustration and heartbreak to the scene opposite the torn and emotionally distraught Daisy, while Tom struggles to restrain his anger and remain level-headed in order to persuade Daisy to remain with him. The Great Gatsby is not an easy film to adapt to the big screen since it must fill an enormous pair of shoes. Although the film contains some fun and engaging elements, it provides neither the entertainment nor the emotional impact it strives to achieve.