'The Great Gatsby' (2013) Movie Review

The Great Gatsby (2013) movie review
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby
Photo: Warner Bros.

In 1974, Jack Clayton brought F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" to the big screen and the film suffered from sticking too close to the source material. Characters rattled off passages of prose from Fitzgerald's now 88-year-old classic that ultimately fell flat as the film could neither capture the mood or feel the book was able to instill in its readers. With his interpretation of The Great Gatsby, sensory director Baz Luhrmann doesn't have to worry about his film being tonally flat, but the best description I can come up with is to call it a fascinating misfire, with mountainous peaks and valleys. Is that a recommendation? You be the judge.

The Great Gatsby
Grade: C+

The Great Gatsby"The Great Gatsby" is a Warner Bros. release, directed by Baz Luhrmann and is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. The running time is .

The cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Gemma Ward, Elizabeth Debicki and Steve Bisley.

Considering his signature, over-the-top approach, Luhrmann may be the best choice to give such a tragic story a jolt of energy. However, Luhrmann has a hard time meshing his vision with the variety of beats the narrative is required to hit and development of character necessary to keep an audience invested.

Beginning, as the book does, with narration from Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the story is told in a series of flashbacks, with bits of strained voiceover here and there. For the life of me I'll never understand this decision in movies when it comes to adapting novels told in the first person. It's a sign of lazy storytellers, unwilling to go the extra mile to find a way to get a story's themes across without a character telling the audience what they are.

Carraway is an unreliable narrator, and I would understand the decision here if this was to be explored to some end, but his words are better served dissected on the page. Amid lavish parties and the spectacle that is Jay Gatsby they serve little purpose here other than to halt the momentum of the film and serve as chapter breaks where none is necessary.

The opening moments of the film, therefore, are of little consequence until Luhrmann provides a not-so-subtle introduction to our main protagonist, Jay Gatsby, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Something of a mystery man of wealth who's built his empire in West Egg so he could keep an eye on the love of his life across the water. DiCaprio fits right into the role -- suave, nervous, yet gentlemanly and endlessly charming -- and the goofy introduction to his character and the big grin on DiCaprio's face as he says, "I'm Gatsby," inspires laughter as much as it does a sense of fun, but this is also where the film runs into issues.

The same lavish party introduction of Gatsby is also the first sign the film's editing isn't in tune with its music. One of The Great Gatsby's strong suits is its soundtrack, but the pulse of the music doesn't march to the same beat as the images on screen. Party goers appear to be moving to a different drum and energy is lost. Additionally, the pacing is never more off than the introduction of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), slowly revealed amidst a flurry of billowing drapes that seems to go on forever.

Luhrmann is clearly a visual storyteller, but with The Great Gatsby he seems to be overcompensating and forgetting something very important... his characters. Yes, part of this story is an emphasis on the emptiness of the lives these people lead and most certainly Daisy and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) are quite empty, just as are the majority of the people surrounding them and those attending Gatsby's parties.

This is where a novel and a movie must part ways. While characters may be able to exist on the peripheral in the novel or an overall sense of character can be understood in a brief monologue on the page, a character can't simply exist on screen without some sense as to why they are there. If a director is willing to disregard his/her characters the audience will do the same. That is, unless an actor can somehow break free of a film's narrative constraints.

DiCaprio is the center of the story. This film is Gatsby round-the-clock and I have no problem with that. DiCaprio is great in the role and a fascinating character to observe. Maguire is a dud. As his character says, he's "within and without", though I would suggest more without than within. Maguire does nothing more than bring an adolescent nature to his character that could have been achieved by anyone, though I believe some measure of greatness could have been found in Carraway from an actor with more imagination.

Isla Fisher's Myrtle Wilson and her husband George (Jason Clarke) are forgotten almost entirely outside of an introduction and the fateful third act.

Then there's Jordan Baker played by Rooney Mara look-a-like Elizabeth Debicki. I guess there's a reason Warner Bros. is giving her credit in the film's marketing and it wasn't simply to give online movie bloggers one more character poster to talk about.

Gatsby is only Debicki's second feature film and she is every bit as memorable as DiCaprio's Gatsby. Her relationship with Nick isn't nearly as emphasized as it was in the book and, by comparison, I'd say it's non-existent. Yet, she manages to light up the room when she's on screen, be it with a look or whispered comment.

Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce (Moulin Rouge!) understand The Great Gatsby can't be interpreted on screen exactly as Fitzgerald wrote it, but I can't say I entirely understand their points of emphasis or all the decisions they've made. I also grew frustrated with on the nose moments of narration or character voiceover from "The eyes of God are always watching" and, straight from the book, "They were careless people." The great thing about movies is these things don't need to be said as much as they'll be understood if a director has told an accomplished story and, for better or worse, I think Luhrmann underestimated his ability to tell this story.

The Great Gatsby is, without a doubt, too long and yet it isn't a disaster. Neither is it a great film or even really a good one for that matter. I did, however, love DiCaprio and Debicki as well as the themes that shine through even though Luhrmann felt compelled to overplay them. I do believe Luhrmann is the right director to give this story a life unlike what is found in the pages of Fitzgerald's book and had he given his characters a little more attention and played with the narrative just a little more he may have had a hit.


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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    Most of the reviews and the RT score has been disappointing. Still going to check it out this weekend just for DiCaprio's performance.

  • John Doe Snow

    Pretty much what I expected...

    What about the 3D though?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

    Yeah. I'm definitely watching this for Di Caprio...he is my favorite actor after all.

  • http://www.digitalkebab.com Shaun Heenan

    I'm one of those rare people who hasn't read the book. Should I do so before seeing the movie? Might it improve the experience not to?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/0Freeman./ 0Freeman.

      I wouldn't read the book if you never have. That way the movie can be a brand new experience instead of knowing most of the narrative beforehand.

  • http://www.criterion.com/my_criterion/27913-criterion10 Criterion10

    Hmm, I'm really excited for this, but am very afraid. The book is great (read it in school this year), but it's one of those examples of a novel that doesn't translate well to the screen.

    Brad, I know you dislike this question, but if I'm deciding between seeing it in 2D or 3D, which would you suggest?

    • http://letterboxd.com/gman/ G-Man

      Not that I'd see it in 3D anyways, but I'm curious as well on Brad's take of the 3D (despite it twice failing during his screening).

  • Aidan Khan

    I actually thought it would be even worst due to the current 42% on RT

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    I love the book, and I'm very interested to see this film. Unfortunately, it seems Luhrman's style once again gets in the way of his characters. But, I guess I'll have to decide for myself this weekend.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Kessler/ Kessler

    The reviews aren't too great for this one, which is disappointing, but I still have some excitement for this, mainly for the visuals and DiCaprio's performance.

  • http://couchpotatodigest.blogspot.com Matt

    I love Luhrmann's style, so I'm really hoping this works for me. The book is great, the soundtrack is incredible and I'm really quite excited for it. The reviews haven't been kind, but I'm still hoping I'll be impressed.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/GothamCity151/ GothamCity151

    I am pretty much on the same page with you with this one, Brad, except for the soundtrack. It is so incredibly disjointed that it hurt my neck. One second Jay-Z is rapping. Five seconds later sweeping strings come in. Five seconds later some Gershwin starts up. Then it'll go to Beyonce. There is no cohesion. I would not have minded Luhrmann using anachronistic music if it was consistent, but he tonally mish-moshes the music by trying to do everything. Period, not period, traditional score, etc.

  • http://www.filmofilia.com Yaz Rabadi

    Ugh... Dreading having to watch this in a few days. Things we do for our mom's.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Corbin/ Corbin

    While this review is disappointing to hear, I'm still looking forward to it. I don't expect it to be like the book at all. The book is very subdued in tone, and Baz's style doesn't seem anything like that.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ryguy815/ Ryguy815

    A little disappointed with the reviews for this one. However I'll probably still go see this on Saturday and I can't wait!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

    Laremy liked it!! But sad you didn't quite liked it Brad but good review. I'm still looking very much forward to the movie due because of DiCaprio, the soundtrack (which I listened a couple days ago and really dug it, several songs I really liked) & visuals despite disappointing reviews. I also like Luhrmann's style a lot. P.S. very disappointed to hear Isla Fisher & Jason Clarke are wasted in this!! I'm fan of both especially Fisher, ugh!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/JNFilms/ JN Films

    My most anticipated film of the year is critically panned. Gosh, this sucks

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Jared/ Jared

    "It's a sign of lazy storytellers, unwilling to go the extra mile to find a way to get a story's themes across without a character telling the audience what they are."

    Huh? The only thing "lazy" is your broad, unexamined assumption that voiceover-narration is inherently "lazy". If any book deserves to have its voiceover brought to the screen, it's 'The Great Gatsby' as Nick's voice is pivotal to our understanding of the text.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Hudsucker/ Hudsucker

      Well you know actors can show things with somethings called "face" and "dialogue".

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      "Nick's voice is pivotal to our understanding of the text."

      Exactly. This is a movie, not text. To consume something visually is different than to read something on the page.

      It is lazy (no quotes necessary) to forgo structuring your narrative without having to have it told to the audience. It's a shortcut. It's saying, "It would have been nice to give you the chance to experience everything firsthand, but we couldn't figure out how to get across all the ideas that were on the page without simply having a character read them."

      Voice over can work... on occasion, here it doesn't. Just my opinion.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    the last trailer was really good which kinda peaked my interest but other than that i cant say i was too excited about this one, i like half the films that DiCaprio has been in but he isnt a big draw for me. Chances are its a rental.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Beautifulm/ Beautifulm

    I may be in the minority here, but I really liked this. It was lavish and charming; I kind of felt like critics were ready to pounce on this as soon as they heard that it was going to be in 3D. It was fun. I thought the entire cast was great save for Isla and Maguire. I didn’t think it was perfect. Maguire was dull and the narration was a bit much. I did feel like Luhrmann was very faithful to the book and was a bit more restrained than usual.

  • http://cinemmaconfessions.com Gautam Anand

    Loved the film.

    The Great Gatsby, is a great story told with a certain nouveau pedigree to bedazzling effect. You are going to be more charmed by the film than touched by it. Though if you can get over its thick layer of razzmatazz, as I did, chances are you will come out moved and stirred by its intricate yet intimate love story.

    My full view on the film .. http://www.cinemaconfessions.com/2013/05/movie-review-great-gatsby.html

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/WINDYINOK/ SANDY ARCHER

    I saw it yesterday and nodded off at least 4 times during the movie. If I had a choice between watching this one or the one made in the 70s with Redford; I would prefer to see the one with Robert Redford. This new one was just kind of depressing and choppy. If it wasn't for the loud sharp noises every once in awhile....I would have slept through the whole movie. Great vintage clothes and cars and some of the music...but, not enough to get a great review.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/sdraivio/ sdraivio

    Way too harsh of a review, Brad. I saw it tonight and absolutely loved it! Even the use of 3D was effective, and as usual, DiCaprio was outstanding. I'd give it a B+ to an A.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/tubahz/ tubahz

      totally agree with you!!!