Review: The Great Gatsby

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a bond trader in New York during the roaring twenties, rents a house on the outskirts of town. His next door neighbor, the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is infamous for his wild parties, as well as the possibly illicit origins of his wealth. They become fast friends, and Nick learns that Gatsby is secretly in love with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who’s married to the blue-blooded Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). After serving in the First World War, Gatsby has devoted himself to winning back his lost love, but is Daisy ultimately unattainable, even for The Great Gatsby?

REVIEW: Hollywood has been trying to make the definitive big-screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel since right after it was published in 1925. There was a silent version in 1926, a film-noir styled one with Alan Ladd in 1949, and in 1974, a version adapted by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robert Redford, which bombed with both critics and audiences. In the interim, there’s been a hip hop version called G, CALIFORNICATION did a season that had a lot of parallels to it, and a fictional film version of it even became a major arc on ENTOURAGE.

Suffice to say though, no previous adaptations have been as ambitious as the latest from Baz Luhrmann, the same guy who not only broke hearts with MOULIN ROUGE, but also managed to contemporize Shakespeare with ROMEO + JULIET in a way no other director has really managed since (although Joss Whedon comes pretty close with MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING). If he could nail a nineties shoot-em-up, MTV version of Shakespeare, wouldn’t he be the ideal guy to do a fun version of GATSBY?

Given that the reviews so far have been mixed to negative, I went in expecting GATSBY to be divisive, but I assumed I would be one of the few critics to love this. I like my movies bold and exciting, and even the prospect of watching 1920’s flappers dancing to an anachronistic soundtrack by Jay-Z didn’t bother me. To my utter amazement, Luhrmann’s GATSBY ended up being something I never thought one of his movies could be: boring.

GATSBY starts off well enough, even if the framing device that sets up Tobey Maguire‘s Nick Carraway as being a patient at a sanitarium who tells his story to a sympathetic doctor seems tacky. DiCaprio doesn’t make his grand entrance until a good half-hour into the movie, but the wildly energetic first half hour, while undeniably over-the-top, is Luhrmann at his best. The dizzying, montage-like editing seemed right out of a classic Warner Bros., melodrama, even if it was clear that most of the exteriors were artificial, and done with CGI. Given the Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized sensibility, this was fine.

DiCaprio’s entrance into the film is excellent, with the slow reveal amid one of Gatsby’s crazy parties having a cool retro vibe (nothing makes an iconic character cooler than a slow reveal- see Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or James Bond in DR.NO). But, once the partying, and non-stop Jay-Z soundtrack subsides, THE GREAT GATSBY ends up being a shockingly hollow movie.

Who gets the blame for this? Obviously Fitzgerald’s text holds up, as much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim, so despite the anachronistic touches, one can’t say Luhrmann wasn’t being faithful. Maybe it comes down to casting. DiCaprio is perfect as Gatsby, effortlessly depicting both Gatsby’s silver-tongued charm (even his oft-repeated “old sport” way of greeting Nick never grates). The rest of the cast is very much a mixed bag. In some ways, Nick Carraway is an even more important part than Gatsby, but Maguire just seems totally aloof. The book and film begins with Nick’s claiming to have been contemptuous of pretty much everyone and everything other than Gatsby, but this never comes across in Maguire’s performance, as his Nick, rather than being cynical seems like a wide-eyed innocent. Maguire certainly isn’t phoning it in, but here he’s almost bland, although again, next to Gatsby maybe
he’s supposed to be unremarkable. That’s great on the page, but on-screen it’s boring. Probably the most fatal bit of miscasting is Carey Mulligan as Daisy. Mulligan is an excellent actress, but Daisy, who sparks an obsession in Gatsby never really comes to life in her hands. Even worse, her chemistry with DiCaprio is non-existent, which is fatal.

The rest of the cast is fine, with newcomer Elizabeth Debicki being particularly striking as Jordan, the unscrupulous object of Nick’s desire. Joel Edgerton utterly disappears into the despicable Tom Buchanan, and he’s so convincing that if I hadn’t gone in knowing it was Edgerton in the part, I would probably not have recognized him. Isla Fisher is also really good as the crass, vulgar (but sexy) Myrtle, but Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan is very eccentrically cast as Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim.

Despite “The Great Gatsby” being such a slim book, Luhrmann’s film runs a lengthy 140 minutes, and it tends to drag on. One of Luhrmann’s greatest strengths as a director is that his movies always have a very strong rhythm and energy, but the movie feels curiously flat. The only time it really comes to life is in the aforementioned early scenes, and the extended party sequences, which is the place Luhrmann’s creativity and style really blooms, with the soundtrack and innovative use of 3D being particular strengths (Luhrmann needs to make another musical).

I really hate giving a movie like THE GREAT GATSBY a poor review, as you can tell Luhrmann’s really shooting for the moon with this, but it just doesn’t come together. Maybe Fitzgerald’s book just needs to be left alone. Somethings can only work on the page, and now, more than ever, “The Great Gatsby” feels like it belongs in that category. Still, I fell compelled to give GATSBY a marginal pass, as it’s not a total loss, if only for the great first half-hour, DiCaprio and the frenzied party sequences. But I have to say, I really, really wish this had been better.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.