For almost 90 years, The Great Gatsby has confounded filmmakers looking to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic work of American literature to the big screen. So you can't fault Baz Luhrmann for trying something different with his attempt to crack the supposedly "unfilmable" novel. Which, in this case, means shooting in 3D and adding Jay-Z to the soundtrack. Because, clearly, that's what was missing from the last four adaptations.
Here's a quick refresher on the plot, for those of us who haven't read the book since high school: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in New York in the spring of 1922, landing next door to mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose ability to host lavish parties is pretty much the only concrete thing anyone seems to know about him. Nick is fascinated by his neighbour's extravagance, and Gatsby in turn by Nick's relation to Daisy (Carey Mulligan), his lost love now living not-so-coincidentally across the bay with her old-money husband (Joel Edgerton).
But while Fitzgerald's iconic novel may be required reading for most English classes, should Luhrmann's flashy update be required viewing for audiences this summer? To help you decide, I broke down what's great and what's not so great about Luhrmann's reimagining.
Great: The Visual Spectacle Nobody throws parties like Jay Gatsby, and no filmmaker does over-the-top extravagance like Luhrmann. And while it's easy to look at the director's choice to turn a Great American Novel into a sensory-overloading 3D carnival ride and cry sacrilege, it does work. Sure, hearing Jay-Z mashed-up with ragtime is anachronistic, and Luhrmann's camera can't seem to sit still for longer than two seconds, but the filmmaker's trademark style ends up fitting the material far more than it distracts from it. At one point, Gatsby asks if he's gone overboard decking out a tiny living room to impress Daisy. "It's how you wanted it," replies Nick. The same holds true for Luhrmann. His film may be an extravagant spectacle, but it's never too much.
Great: DiCaprio's Gatsby If Luhrmann takes Fitzgerald's novel over-the-top, DiCaprio brings it back down to Earth. After starting out as a near-mythic figure whose on-screen introduction is accompanied by fireworks, DiCaprio's Gatsby slowly morphs into something far more relatable and tragic. It's a performance with a remarkable amount of depth and restraint in a movie otherwise marked by style over substance, and it helps keep The Great Gatsby grounded. The rest of the cast hit their marks with equal accuracy, especially Edgerton as Gatsby's rival for Daisy's affection, but make no mistake, this is Leo's party.
Great: The Soundtrack Much has been made of Jay-Z's involvement in the film (he's credited as an executive producer), but setting period melodrama to a modern soundtrack has been Luhrmann's MO long before Gatsby. Featuring songs by everyone from Jack White to Florence + The Machine and Lana Del Rey, the anachronistic soundtrack fits fairly seamlessly into Luhrmann's modern reimagining, underpinning the movie's numerous pulsating party scenes. In fact, there's only one contemporary tune that feels distractingly out of place: "Crazy in Love." Sorry, Jay-Z.
Not So Great: The Film's Bookends Whether the novel's "unfilmable" rep got into Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce's heads or they just thought it was a clever addition, The Great Gatsby chooses to explain Nick's narration by setting him in a sanitarium (named after Fitzgerald's editor Max Perkins). There, he's encouraged to work through his "morbid alcoholism" by writing down his account of the summer he met his old friend. It's a dumb, hokey framing device, and adds to the film's pacing problems by pointlessly cutting away from Gatsby's lavish world to stale shots of Maguire hunched over a typewriter. For some reason, asking us to accept that a fictional character is simply narrating a story is too much of a leap, but the idea that he's writing an iconic work of literature under the offhand suggestion of his shrink isn't.
And when all's said and done, we're treated to a shot of Nick taking a pen and amending "The Great" to his now-finished novel's title page. I wish I was joking, but this really does happen. And it's the stuff Razzies are made of.
Not So Great: It's "Literary" Which is to say, we see Maguire type, and then those words appear and float across the screen as he narrates. With a novel as beloved as Fitzgerald's "Gatsby," more renowned for its prose than its plotting, it's understandable to want to work in the book's more iconic lines, but unfortunately, it's done in the least elegant way possible here, capturing the words but not their meaning. And for all of Luhrmann's visual flourishes and modern touches, and DiCaprio's commendable performance, it's these curiously outdated elements and glossy superficial sheen that keep this Gatsby from being truly great.
The Great Gatsby opens in theatres on May 10.