Is Baz Luhrmann’s take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby great? Perhaps. Contrary to most reviews, it’s certainly unusually good. In fact, it is possibly the most unfairly maligned film this year.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, the plot is told through the eyes of stockbroker Nick (Tobey Maguire), who comes to New York during the boom of the 1920s and finds himself living next to mysterious “new-money” Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby ingratiates himself with Nick, who is dazzled and beguiled by the enigmatic millionaire and his lavish parties. However it soon becomes apparent that Gatsby’s schemes centre on Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who has a romantic history with Gatsby but ultimately ended up married to boorish Tom (Joel Edgerton).
The Fitzgerald original is frankly one of the best books ever written, ranking alongside Catcher in the Rye and Moby Dick as contenders for the “great American novel”. Previous film adaptations have somehow missed the essence of it, but this version is akin to a good cover version of a well -loved record (as opposed to a pointless karaoke version by Westlife). Consider the Pet Shop Boys cover of Elvis Presley’s Always on my Mind – my personal favourite cover version of all time. Some denounce the Pet Shop Boys take as missing the soul of the Elvis version, but the fact is their version is a brilliant Pet Shop Boys record, not an Elvis record. In the same way, Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby is a Luhrmann film through and through, not a Fitzgerald novel. Nor should it be, as this is first and foremost a movie.
Sticking with the subject of music for a moment, one of the criticisms levelled against this has been that the use of current pop music (including Jay-Z and Lana Del Ray) is anachronistic. True, but that’s precisely the point. In using current tunes, Luhrmann is inviting a somewhat obvious comparison between the decadence and greed of the 1920s (and the subsequent economic crash) to our own times. This artistic choice works very well indeed, because Gatsby’s themes of greed are timeless. So is what the novel has to say about obsession and perceptions of fantasy and reality. The film is both true to the incidents of the book and to these themes, in spite of Luhrmann’s dialled-up-to-11 visuals. These are admittedly a matter of taste, but I think the lurid, garish, deliberately over-the-top CGI spectacle marries very well with the subject matter. Performances are all good (especially DiCaprio) and ultimately one can hardly leave the cinema feeling short-changed. Perhaps a little exhausted, but not short-changed.
There are problems – the ending curiously omits some achingly sad incidents, including one involving Gatsby’s father – but all things considered the film works, in spite of minor flaws. Most of the criticisms have missed the point. Ultimately if you enjoyed Luhrmann’s previous films (and I enjoyed them all, including Australia), you will probably enjoy this. If you don’t, you probably won’t.