I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby back in college. Because it was homework, I found it boring. Then a couple of years ago, I watched the 1974 Robert Redford adaptation of the novel, because it was directed by Jack Clayton, who helmed one of my favorite films, The Innocents. I found it boring too.
I don't know why Baz "Short Attention Span" Luhrmann's glitzy new adaptation drew me back to The Great Gatsby, but it did, and I actually re-read the book a month before seeing Luhrmann's film. What a surprise: Fitzgerald's novel zips along and feels remarkably contemporary. It could have been written in 2013 (which may be Luhrmann's point). And yet, while the book is engaging and casts a cold light on the American dream, it's so intimate that I wondered how it became this Epic Classic.
I'm giving you this long lead-in to explain why I enjoyed Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby so much more than others have: because, with the novel so fresh in my mind, I found the film hugely faithful to Fitzgerald's words and plot, and I suspect that many of Luhrmann's detractors have forgotten what reading the book is actually like.
The one big misstep Luhrmann (and his regular cowriter Craig Pearce) makes is adding a clunky framing device, in which the story's narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is seen in a sanitarium some years after the events of Gatsby. I guess it's meant to justify the film's liberal use of Fitzgerald's first-person narration, but it stands out like a sore thumb amidst its otherwise fierce adherence to its source material. (To make matters worse, Luhrmann and Pearce recast Carraway as a would-be writer; he can't just be a struggling bond salesman, as in the novel.)
Otherwise, Fitzgerald's words leap off the page – often literally. I found Leonardo DiCaprio perfectly cast as Gatsby – or at least he's a much better fit than the aloof Robert Redford ever was. He's boyish, awkward, nervy, and ultimately pathetic – a dorky rich kid posturing as a mysterious playboy, in the film just as, perhaps, in real life. Although he and his old buddy Maguire are a teensy bit too old for their roles, their cherubic faces made me buy them as 32 and 30 years old, respectively. Carey Mulligan is also well-cast as the romanticized but ultimately empty Daisy Buchanan; Joel Edgerton fills his polo boots nicely as her bullying husband Tom.
Luhrmann, perhaps aware that the 3-D medium doesn't suit itself well to his usual manic editing style, thankfully slows down the pace. And as you'd imagine, his film is gorgeous to look at, thanks to his producer/wife Catherine Martin, who serves as both costume designer and production designer. She's the real MVP here.
Much has been made about Luhrmann's use of contemporary hip hop on the soundtrack, courtesy of executive producer Jay-Z, but don't be scared: unlike Moulin Rouge!, the music itself doesn't time-travel back into the 1920s; as in a Tarantino movie, it may be what we the audience hear, but it's clear that the onscreen characters are swaying their hips to era-appropriate jazz. And in any event, these tracks are fleeting. Much more time is given to Craig Armstrong's lovely score, as well as the Xx's haunting "Together", which practically becomes the theme song of The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald's book may never be given full justice on the silver screen, but Baz Luhrmann's interpretation is, I think, as close as we're ever going to get. It's not perfect, but then, the novel wasn't perfect either.