The Great Gatsby (2013) Review

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That first Gatsby film was released a year after Fitzgerald’s novel was published, and no remaining copy of it exists: a twist that would have pleased Zelda enormously. Neither she nor F Scott lived to see any of the four subsequent Gatsby adaptations — which include the dreary 1949 noir, the frigid 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and the already forgotten 2000 television movie — but it seems unlikely that any would have passed the Zelda test.

My guess is that she would have checked out of Baz Luhrmann’s occasionally brilliant, often undernourished 3D version at around the 20-minute mark, when Myrtle Wilson pops a record on the gramophone in her New York apartment and the voice of the rapper Kanye West comes booming out, over a bass line that would shake the girders of the Empire State Building. The party that ensues looks like the best one you’ve never been invited to, with champagne sneezing its way across the screen in great, fizzy arcs, drenching the revellers’ silk slips and singlets.

That’s Luhrmann’s style, but it’s not Fitzgerald’s, and there is surely no contradiction in praising the Australian director’s batty ambitions for this story while admitting that they often work against it. He lays on a cinematic buffet of such sense-addling, smack-you-in-the-face-with-a-halibut brazenness that it takes around an hour before you notice the film is finger-food and nothing more. On the plus side, it’s an all-you-can-eat deal.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby, the newly minted millionaire of West Egg, New York, and Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan, the lost love he longs to win back. On the rare occasions Luhrmann gives them space to act in the pulsating frenzy of his Jazz Age world, both do a wonderful job.

Tobey Maguire, meanwhile, is Nick Carraway, who acts as our guide to the three parallel worlds of the 1930s: Old Money, New Money and No Money. After the party at Myrtle’s, where we get the measure of Daisy’s cruel husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), we’re in West Egg at one of Gatsby’s house parties, where streamers arc through the air like paper rainbows, and dancing girls shimmy and whirl like Tasmanian devils on the rampage.

The crucial moments of drama, however, are often drably handled, and when Gatsby and Tom finally have it out over Daisy’s future in a sweltering Manhattan hotel suite, you can’t help but wish that one of them had snuck in a glitter cannon. Luhrmann last worked with DiCaprio on his 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and the ending of that film felt so immediate that you prayed for Romeo to drop his vial of poison, or for Claire Danes’s Juliet to wake a minute sooner. Here, plot is something that happens when there’s nothing better to do.

Luhrmann’s film, which opens the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday evening before arriving in British cinemas on Thursday, is the Gatsby that Gatsby himself would have made, and you can hear the director’s voice whenever DiCaprio speaks.

“Do you think it’s too much?” frets Gatsby, after burying Nick’s living room in flowers in advance of his fateful afternoon tea with Daisy. “I think it’s what you want,” shrugs Nick. Then Gatsby, with a thoughtful look and no apology: “I think so, too.”

 

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