I greatly enjoy the novel the film is based on, but there are so many problems in the film that don’t even have to do with its nature as an adaptation. I’m not sure where to start.
*The use of modern music
The idea of using modern music works fantastically well for me; I understand the idea to convey the larger-than-life, hip, party vibe, and while the usage of 2010s music dates the film, the usage of 1920s music would be dated in its own way. For giving the audience a visceral feel for the excess of the 1920s, I thought the use of modern music was a clever touch. However, I believe the idea is executed terribly in the film.
We barely ever get to hear the new songs! We hear snippets between ten and twenty seconds, before Luhrmann moves on to the next scene. I was infuriated during Gatsby’s first party, where there are two songs by modern artists we hear barely any of before Luhrmann switches to a dialogue-heavy scene with the music drowned out. What was the point of recruiting all these successful modern artists if their music was to be barely even heard? Lana Del Rey’s contribution was the only song to get significant time in the movie, and even it barely gets a minute before it’s drowned out by dialogue.
Luhrmann can craft scenes of excess and excitement very well, but he never lets me enjoy them before snapping me away to the next scene. The scene of Nick’s impromptu party with Tom in New York, early in the story, is meant to naturally develop to the point Nick starts to feel repulsion at the antics, but in the film it’s paced so bizzarely that it’s barely even begun before Nick is regaling us with how he feels disconnected from it all.
*Showing vs. telling
Film is a visual medium. Books are a textual medium. Plenty of fantastic films use narration, but Luhrmann flat-out does nonsense like having Nick narrate lines from the book and overlaying it with visuals depicting the exact same thing. This is understandable when preserving some of the beautiful and iconic prose from the novel, but when it’s purely workmanlike lines like “There were nightmarish headlines in the paper”, why must we hear Tobey Maguire narrate that, AND see a visual overlay of three different nightmarish headlines? It’s maddening.
I personally find myself frustrated with any adaptation of a novel that tries to clumsily preserve the prose. The novel is already the perfect form of the story in prose. It is impossible to improve the story through prose, as the novel is purely prose and film is primarily visual. Films that improve upon their source material are nearly invariably those that take a different angle, or use cinematic techniques skilfully (think Coppola and Kubrick’s adaptations).
Using the iconic last line of the novel as the ending makes sense, sure, but did Luhrmann have to literally have the letters form on the screen as Nick said them? It felt so tacky and distracting from the actual message of the words.
*The bizarre invented Nick story
Nick writing the novel itself in a sanitarium is beyond ludicrously unnecessary. The story is the story. We don’t need a “reason” for it existing. Every film doesn’t need a meta-story about the construction of the text itself. It’s ridiculous, and I don’t know why Luhrmann thought twisting Nick’s character around to make him a direct parallel to Fitzgerald was a good idea. It weakens Nick’s character and just adds eye-rollingly obvious references to any familiar with Fitzgerald.
Nick’s defining characteristic in the novel is his sensibility; he’s tolerant, he’s passive, he’s calm. None of this is in the film. He fought in World War One and came out basically fine, yet a spot of manslaughter (that he wasn’t present for and had little to do with) and heavy drinking literally drives him insane? It’s such a bizarre, silly inclusion, that pads the movie and gives it a cliche structural format. Yeah, I understand it’s alluding to Fitzgerlald’s own life but…so what? It doesn’t strengthen the film. It’s just a reference Fitzgerald fans can say “oh, I understand” to…meanwhile, weakening the film.
*Missing the point
The Great Gatsby uses the love story to tell a larger story about America and the American dream, but Luhrmann seems to view the love story as THE story. I’m Australian like him so I’m sympathetic to a degree of separation from identifying directly with the story, but it really isn’t a difficult concept to grasp. The novel is taught in high schools. Luhrmann is perfectly free to pursue a different direction, but when following the structure of the book nearly completely, the shift of thematic focus feels disconcerting. The lack of chemistry between DiCaprio and Mulligan only further serves to harm the film when it seems all Luhrmann focuses on as soon as they meet.
As for the cast, I’m of two minds here. Some were exceptional, with Joel Edgerton being the surprise marvel of the film for me. He was fantastic. DiCaprio also delivered one of his better performances; Luhrmann is a director who seems to know how to get the best from him. Maguire was fine; he’s acted much better before but he doesn’t embarrass himself or anything. I thought Mulligan was woefully miscast and I could barely stand her in the film. Her line deliveries were awful and often directly contradictory to the meaning of the line. Her performance was so disconnected from the character itself. What a mess. Jason Clarke was alright, but the bizarre and unnecessary change of Wilson from a man with no interest in religion to someone motivated to violence through it weakened the character.
It frustrates me most of the negative reception of the film centred around the anachronistic elements. He’s using the music from one generation to comment on another; this isn’t groundbreaking stuff and it’s often praised in directors like Tarantino. I thought it worked great for the few seconds he actually gave the audience to appreciate it. I think they’re an easy thing to latch onto as strange; but they strike me as the only creative and interesting element of the film. The real flaws of the film are lazy, silly writing, and frantic, maddening editing. There was potential here, but it was nearly completely squandered.
I give it one green light, and an abbreviated dance number.