FlixChatter Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

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When I first heard about Baz Luhrmann‘s project to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel to life, I have to admit I wasn’t too keen on the idea. Then I read that he was going to do the movie in 3D, which prompted an eye-rolling reaction and a shrug. I mean, what could we possibly gain from setting the story in friggin’ 3D?? Heh, as if his style wasn’t over the top enough. But I was willing to give Baz the benefit of the doubt, after all, I adore Moulin Rouge! and to some degree his version of Romeo + Juliet.  I feel that the anachronism and grandiose style worked for both films. Thus, going into this film, the question isn’t whether or not it’ll be style-over-substance, but how much of Baz’s signature style is going to get in the way of this classic story.

I have to preface this review with a confession that I have NOT read the book, so I can’t say whether this is a faithful adaptation or not. I downloaded the preview to my Kindle six months ago with the plan to read it before the movie is out, alas I haven’t got around to it. But many of you who had to read this in high school literature class know the gist:

Set during the roaring 20s, the story centers on the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby living in the fictional town of West Egg on prosperous Long Island. Just like the book, the story is told from the point of view of a Midwestern-born Yale grad Nick Carraway who rents a small house next door to Gatsby as he commutes to his job as a bond salesman in NYC.

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The film starts off stylishly of course, right from the very second the Art Deco frame you’ve seen on all the posters come on screen to reveal the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s house just across from Gatsby’s mansion. For the first 20 min or so, we never see our protagonist, but Mr. Gatsby is featured prominently through Nick’s story to his therapist at the sanitarium that he’s checked himself into. This framing device made me, the audience, feel even more eager to meet Mr. Gatsby, especially to find out just what made Nick so enamored by this character and just what the heck happened that Summer of 1922.

To say the parties at the Gatsby are wildly lavish is a giant understatement. I’ve never seen anything like it, even from Baz himself. Most of the guests aren’t even invited but the booze, confetti and fireworks are never in short supply in this loud and crazy carnival-like soiree. I feel like I was living vicariously though Nick as he tries to wiggle through the crowd to find the elusive host. I quite like the way Gatsby was introduced, as there’s been a pretty effective built-up until that moment.

GreatGatsby_Stills

Just like Gatsby’s party, the film has the undeniably power to enthrall and mesmerize with its opulent extravagance, but at the same time it’s so overwhelming and even headache-inducing. I know I expected the ‘more-is-more’ style from Baz, but he seems to have upped the ante with this one. Perhaps Baz is trying to illustrate just how huge a contrast is between the festive and seemingly-blissful exterior of Gatsby’s life with that of his inner turmoil. The bigger the parties, the emptier Gatsby life is. They say money doesn’t buy happiness. Well, it’s never rings truer than in Gatsby’s life.

The quiet(er) moments in this film come few and far in between, but even when they arrive, I still haven’t quite recovered from the dizzying fracas. One of those moments is when Gatsby is with his lost love Daisy, whom he fell for five years ago and the one he’s been trying to win back ever since. Their reunion scene is actually one of the highlights for me just because it’s so hilarious. Perhaps the lightest segment of the whole film, as the film turns progressively darker. That scene is also one of the most revealing of Gatsby’s character, as beneath of that massive success and wealth, he is such a broken man with such a huge insecurity complex and almost paralyzing self-doubt. At the same time, Gatsby is a man of hope, which is something that Nick admires but also cautions him for.

Carraway: “You can’t repeat the past.”
Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

There is a fine line between hope and delusion, and Gatsby hasn’t the faintest clue where to draw it. But it’s obvious that his “hope” is more of an illusion. And so is the romance between him and Daisy. Is he in love with Daisy the woman or the idea of being with her? Unlike the romance in Moulin Rouge! where I really feel the heart-wrenching connection between Christian and Satine, I don’t quite feel that with Gatsby and Daisy. Whether that’s intentional or not I don’t know, but I think that becomes a detriment to the story for me as beneath all that longing look and love-struck poetry, mislaid a beating heart. Therein lies the crux of this film adaptation. Perhaps it’s an inherent problem that is least likely to be overcome by most filmmakers, least of whom Baz Luhrmann.

GreatGatsby_CarrawayGatsby

It’s not entirely vapid however, I actually think the bromance (if you want to even call it that) between Gatsby and Carraway speaks to me more than the doomed romance. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire – who are apparently BFFs in real life – have an effortless chemistry and their mutual fondness and respect is palpable. Which brings me to the performances. The scene of just the two of them in the opulent but desolate Gatsby estate is the most heart-wrenching.

I think DiCaprio is quite convincing as Gatsby, I think he embodies the character well and does what he could with the material given. I can’t help but being reminded of his other roles such as in Titanic, Romeo + Juliet and also as Howard Hughes in The Aviator during one particularly intense scene. I think Leo is a talented actor but not exactly a chameleon. Maguire is perfectly cast as Carraway, he definitely projects that naive, Midwestern sensibility and warmth that’s perfect for the role. Now, Carey Mulligan who has impressed me in other roles is pretty good as Daisy, but she doesn’t quite jump off the screen as I expected. I mean she’s believable as someone Gatsby would fall head over heels in love with, but she just isn’t as memorable here somehow.

Clockwise from top left: Edgerton, Debicki, Bachchan, Fisher & Clarke
Clockwise from top left: Edgerton, Debicki, Bachchan, Fisher & Clarke

On the other hand, Elizabeth Debicki as the amateur golfer Jordan Baker might prove to be the Aussie actress’ breakthrough role. Fellow Aussies Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke (who were both in Zero Dark Thirty, but the length of screen time is reversed as Clarke has a smaller role here) also turned in memorable supporting turn, as well as yet another Aussie Isla Fisher. It’s inspired casting to have veteran Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the Jewish businessman (most likely a kingpin) and gambler Meyer Wolfshiem. He definitely made an impression despite his short screen time.

Visually speaking, this is definitely a feast for the eyes. Baz is no stranger to creating a fantastical escapist entertainment with spectacular set design, beautiful costumes, and cinematography. Baz’s own wife and frequent collaborator Catherine Martin won an Oscar for Best Art Direction for Moulin Rouge! and she might nab some nominations for this one as well. Now despite my initial quibble about the 3D format, this one turns out to be one of the most effective use of 3D since Martin Scorsese’s HUGO. I still don’t think it’s actually necessary but at least Baz was able to do something innovative with it.

Final Thoughts: I was entertained and even enthralled by the visual spectacle and the music (especially Lana Del Rey‘s lush ballad Young & Beautiful), but ultimately, there’s not much emotional depth to really leave its mark. Whatever poignancy and real pathos in Fitzgerald’s novel is dimmed out by all that glitter, leaving the audience wanting more. “Oh, you want too much!” Daisy cried to Gatsby during one particularly heated exchange. Well, I don’t think we are asking too much as the audience to want more than a snack for our soul to go with all that visual feast.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


What are your thoughts of The Great Gatsby? Let’s hear it in the comments!

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64 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

  1. ninvoid99

    I know this is a flawed film and I think there’s things that Luhrmann could’ve done to improve by having less narration and less fast-cutting styles but I did enjoy the film as I thought it was a fun and engaging film. I know this film is dividing people as I’m in the camp that liked it. I had a good time watching it.

    1. I actually didn’t mind the narration, but overall Luhrmann’s style tend to overwhelm the senses. But y’know I still enjoyed it, 3.5 is still not a bad movie 😀

  2. Ted S.

    Not sure if I’ll see this one, Luhrmann‘s last film Australia put me to sleep and I couldn’t even finish it. And I’m not a big fan of Moulin Rouge! either. Maybe when I’m bored some day, I’ll rent it. Maybe we’ll see a version of Alexander that Leo and Luhrmann was supposed to work on since this film made some pretty good $$ at the box office. We need a good movie about Alexander the Great since Oliver Stone’s version was atrocious.

    1. Ahah yeah, Australia is quite dull isn’t it? I only saw parts of it when it was on TV and even hunky Hugh Jackman and that gratuitous shower scene could save that movie!

      I think this one is a better film and at least I wasn’t bored with it. The 3D use is actually pretty effective for once, but I still think it doesn’t really add much to the film.

      I don’t know about Alexander but I suppose it can’t be worse than the Oliver Stone one, ahah. I’d love to see an adaptation that’s more substantial in story/character though, but Baz seems to care more about the visuals (like that Kosinski guy who did Oblivion).

  3. Good review. I definitely agree with you on this one and sadly didn’t find Mulligan’s performance too memorable either. I’m thinking about going to see it again, perhaps in 3-D this time.

    1. It’s too bad about Mulligan as she’s a talented actress. I even think at times that perhaps she was miscast? I think the 3D is pretty good here, but then again I’d have expected that from Baz.

  4. Ruth – Baz Luhrmann is bound to annoy, aggravate, or amaze. There’s never a middle ground with him. And I’m sure we can agree that each of us took away something different from TGG.

    Rather than doing just a straight forward review – we did a discussion. Hope you’ll take a look at it. I’d also like you to consider working with us on our next project.

    jmm.

    1. Hello Mike! What a great idea to do a discussion post. I’ll read it thoroughly over lunch. I’m up for participating in your next project. I’ll shoot you an email shorty 😀

  5. Nice review Ruth Sooo looking forward to seeing this. Had to push my viewing back till Tuesday so my wife can see it too. I’m a huge fan of the Fitzgerald’s story and just recently reread it. That instantly makes me excited and nervous at the same time!

    1. That’s cool Keith, I had my hubby with me at the screening too and we had a nice discussion about it after. I’m VERY curious to hear from the perspective of a big fan of the novel. I look forward to your review!

  6. I will give this a view primarily for Dicaprio (whose work I think remains more than interesting). A lot of criticism has been heaped on this. But, as one who read the novel back in high school, and saw the ’74 version first-run, I’m very curious. Thanks for the fine review, Ruth.

    1. I think critics are bound to be divided on this one but I don’t think it’s fair to completely lambast this film simply because they don’t like Baz’s style. For what it’s worth, I think his ‘excessive’ style actually works for Gatsby’s character and his extravagant life, even if it doesn’t quite satisfy on the emotional front. So do you think I should give the Redford version a watch Michael? It’s on Netflix Streaming and I’ve been curious to check it out.

      1. Oh, yes. It’s definitely worth a look. More so for Redford in that distinctive role, and for the fact it was a 70s film that took similar criticism in its day with how it handled F. Scott’s material. I daresay, it’s better liked now. Maybe with this, too, with the passage of time.

  7. Great review, Ruth. I too was very baffled at first, hearing that the story would be adapted by Baz AND in 3D. I liked the 3D a lot though and thought it complimented the visuals well. It’s funny that you talk about Tobey and Leo’s bromance as well, as I thought that was very lacking, given the fact they’re BFFs in real life.. Wanted to see more built on that. Or it could just be that Leo acted Tobey out of the park…

    1. Hi there Nick! Yeah I think the 3D use is quite innovative, I like that first part w/ the art deco frame thing. I think the bromance is more compelling than the romance, I mean I could feel that Nick really was ‘swept off his feet’ by Gatsby’s lifestyle so to speak, but I thought their friendship was convincing. Ahah, I don’t think Leo acted Tobey out of the park, I actually thought Tobey was the one that kept the film grounded for me, as I’d imagine Nick would in the book.

            1. I guess being from Indonesia I can relate. We often get shows that are probably already canceled in the US, ahah. Same with movies, we almost always get it weeks or months later. Not every movie though, sometimes the blockbuster ones might open the same weekend as here in the US. Who knows!!

              1. Yeah, blockbusters open at the same time or even before! Like Star Trek: Into Darkness (which I already saw), Iron Man 3 and The Avengers. All of those opened a week earlier.

                1. Did you review Star Trek: Into Darkness yet? I didn’t see it on your blog. See, you got that one way ahead of us. I’m seeing it on Wed at a press screening 😀

  8. Good review Ruth. Can’t say that I hated it, just felt like it was a bit too dull for my taste. Really dull, especially because I read the novel before hand.

    1. Wow, it makes me wonder now just how exciting is the novel? 😀 I still would read it one day as I had been planning to do so before I watch this film.

  9. Superb review Ruth! I haven’t read the book either so I don’t know whether that will help or hinder my enjoyment of it, but I still want to check this out. I’m a bit of a DiCaprio fan and I loved Carey Mulligan in Shame, so I want to see how they get on.

    1. I haven’t read it either Chris but it’s such a classic that I’m familiar w/ the story. Well, as I said about the romance, it’s not as em, gripping as what I expected, considering how talented these two are. But still, even from looking at all the actresses that were considered for Daisy, I don’t know if any one of those on the list would be better than Mulligan.

    1. Oh that’s ok Steph, though there’s no spoilers here (if you haven’t read the book that is). Awww, that’s so sweet of you to say, that made my day!! 😀

    1. Ahah well I can tell you right now, the party scenes don’t disappoint, Pete. Well if you like ’em wild and crazy that is 😀

    1. Oh she’s still good, Chris, just not as memorable as her other roles. I was sooo impressed w/ her in Never Let Me Go and An Education. But then again, as I said to the other Chris above, she’s probably still better than the other actresses that were considered for Daisy.

  10. lrstreet

    I loved reading this review. I haven’t seen the movie myself but you seemed to echo the same thoughts that Jess/Nick had with their experience.

    1. Hi Lindsay! I just read Jess/Nick review, and I agree w/ Jess that there’s not a strong chemistry between Mulligan and DiCaprio which is a shame as it’s the core of this love story. I think DiCaprio nails the obsessive nature of Gatsby though, but not in the romantic sense. Curious to hear what you think once you see it!

  11. Really good review, and I can’t agree more with your analysis of it. However, I think that since I’ve read the novel numerous times, and loved it, I was able to get more of the ‘substance’ out of it since I was able to follow it easier and fill in the little holes with my pre-established knowledge. But, Baz still should’ve added more depth to it I think.

    1. Hi William! Appreciate your comment, glad to hear that as a fan of the book you actually got more out of this film. I don’t think the lack of emotional involvement comes from the lack of knowledge about the story and/or characters, perhaps more in the chemistry of the leads as film is a visual medium whereas the book relies on our imagination.

  12. Great review Ruth! I think I liked it a little more than you did, but I was ready for anything after suffering through the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. 😉

    I agree on DiCaprio being great, but not a chameleon. Like most actors, he has certain traits that show up in his performances. I’d even argue that the same could be said of great actors like Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

    1. Ahah, interesting that I hear from a couple people with two very different opinions about the 1974 version. I still might give it a go w/ um, reserved expectations 🙂

      I suppose you’re right some actors might have that trademark style. Some can overcome it and some can’t but I think Leo is still a pretty darn good actor.

  13. I felt like Baz was too slavishly devoted to the book. The framing device of using Nick Carraway narrate didn’t draw me into a story about Gatsby like it did in the book. Watching 3D words float around the screen like a special effect was mildly amusing. I liked the parties, but not the story. A disappointment for me, although I can understand why you liked it.

    1. Hi Mark, it’s been interesting to hear from fans of the book about how they feel about the film. I thought the framing device was quite effective but then again, not having read the book I can’t really compare. Yeah, the 3D was actually entertaining instead of annoying, which is always a nice change, ahah.

  14. a very detail review, Ruth. I remember reading a twit saying this is the worst movie ever but you seem to like it mire than him 😉

    I think I will just let this go, not that interested.

    1. I’m not surprised how polarizing this movie is Nov. I suppose if you don’t care for the story/cast then I could see why you’d want to skip this. There are some movies I don’t feel like I’d be missing out on either.

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  16. DiCaprio makes an excellent Gatsby (stepping around the pun, LOL), there’s no doubt. And it wasn’t entirely vapid, but it felt pretty close to me. Still, we’re not far apart here… There were some things to like. I agree with your “Final Verdict” 100% 😉

  17. I’m really not interested in seeing this one, the trailers gave me a headache and I don’t think DiCaprio was the right choice for his character. Shame Mulligan wasn’t better, she is probably the only reason why I will see this one on DVD.

    1. I thought Leo acquits himself well in the role but there were times I admit, that I feel like I was watching him the actor, as he never fully ‘lose himself’ in his characters. Perhaps a VERY talented and charismatic unknown actor might’ve worked better as Gatsby, but of course having Leo’s name helps SELL the movie.

  18. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth:

    ‘The Great Gatsby’ looks like opulent, eye popping, glitzy eye candy taken to the extreme. While its overall story is a mile wide and half an inch deep. No depth at all.

    I’ll stick with a small film from 1975, ‘The Wild Party’. That’s steeped in the “Fatty” Arbuckle sex scandal. Meticulous detail work period piece with James Coco and Raquel Welch.

    1. Hi Jack! Baz’s style is decidedly extreme as you say, he doesn’t seem to like subtlety, ahah. Ah Raquel Welch, I could see why you’d rather watch that film [wink, wink]

  19. def fair criticism of the rest of the cast. Mulligan, Clarke, Edgerton…no one except DiCaprio and Maguire made me care for their characters. I have a difficult time even recalling their names at times. But I do remember Carraway and Gatsby.

    Nice review!

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  21. Good review Ruth. Glad to see you gave the movie a fair chance (unlike countless other film critics). Don’t forget to read the novel though, it’s definitely worth your time. 🙂

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