Film: The Great Gatsby (3D)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Amitabh Bachchan
If adapting a great piece of literature means putting words on to the screen, then Baz Luhrmann, the man who has made the latest film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby gets it right. On many occasions in his loud and extravagant adaptation of what is deemed to be ‘the greatest American novel’, we see Fitzgerald’s words forming into sentences from freely flowing letters on screen. Amidst the loud music played at Gatsby’s house parties and the computer-generated landscapes of New York of the 1920s, you realise that Luhrmann clearly misses the point. That a classic is not just about what is said, it is more so about what is left unsaid.
Subtlety is definitely not Moulin Rouge maker Luhrmann’s forte. And, that is exactly the reason why Fitzgerald novella has attained its cult status. Set in the time when the jazz age has bid goodbye, Wall Street has crashed and the Great Depression is waiting around the corner, the novel paints a picture of love, loss, corruption and loyalty using its protagonist, the wealthy Jay Gatsby’s life and times. Sadly, the film oversimplifies it all and leaves no room for the viewer’s imagination, blinding him with extravagant set-pieces, over-the-top costumes and needlessly elaborated graphics, all this exaggerated by 3D.
The story is narrated in the film by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a depressed alcoholic who is spending his last days at an asylum, to his therapist. He recalls his years as a young bond trader in Long Island who manages to rent a small house next to the huge mansion of ‘the great’ Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The city’s who’s who attend Gatsby’s lavish and sumptuous parties, and they wonder how he got so rich while sipping on his wine and nibbling on his macaroons. Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her arrogant husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) live just across the bay from Gatsby’s. But it takes a while for Nick to figure out that this is not a mere coincidence. There is a purpose why Gatsby lives across the bay, why he throws extravagant parties, why he has “a man in England” who buys him clothes. All this and more in the hope that he can win back Daisy, who was in love with him before she got tired of waiting for him to get rich and married Tom instead.
Luhrmann hits the bull eye by casting DiCaprio and Mulligan in their roles. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is stylish and suave and one look at his eyes and you end up blaming Daisy in your mind for having left him in the first place. Both he and Mulligan handle the scenes which show their reunion after five years beautifully and these form some of the very few subtle and endearing portions in the film. But Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway sticks out like a sore thumb. He looks confused, unaffected and sometimes even detached in many of the important scenes. Luhrmann’s Buchanan, too, doesn’t seem as snobbish as Fitzgerald portrays him in the book and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker also doesn’t help much. However, Amitabh Bachchan, who appears in a short but important role as gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, does complete justice to his part. Although there are many references to his character throughout the movie, we get to see him onscreen only for a few minutes.
What disappoints the most is however the ending, which is quite different from that in the book. Although the scenes that precede the ending are filled with drama and well-crafted, Luhrmann is not able to retain this till the end. The film ends rather abruptly and on a lifeless note, leaving the viewer wondering if there’s anything more to come. But one thing that stays with you even after the credits roll, of course other than DiCaprio’s charming play of Gatsby, is the omniscient and ubiquitous gaze of Doctor Ecklebug on the billboard that overlooks the valley. In is unfair to say that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a dud, because it does work in parts and in people, but it is definitely not what it calls itself—great!
(An edited version of this review can be found in The Week magazine dated June 9, 2013)