The Great Gatsby: Movie Review


I saw Baz Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” Thursday night for the 10:00 showing, and I really wanted to get an early movie review out Friday. That did not happen due to work obligations, but I’m actually very glad now.

The weekend reviews are in, and a lot of them are, well, terrible.

I just reread “the great American Novel” a couple of weeks ago (for the first time since high school), and I was glad that I did.

I have anticipated this movie for many months now, but I can be a harsh critic of creative and film, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Would it be completely different from Baz’s previous work? Would it follow the book well? Would it stray needlessly?

A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote a review that I actually agree with for the most part (believe me, they were hard to find). In his opening sentence, he says this:

The best way to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s big and noisy new version of “The Great Gatsby” — and despite what you may have heard, it is an eminently enjoyable movie — is to put aside whatever literary agenda you are tempted to bring with you.

I feel that many of these early “critics” made up their mind before even seeing the film. Nothing could live up to their own interpretation of it or to their literary snobbery. Baz is controversial–he’s wildly creative and has a larger-than-life take on everything. There is no director quite like him, and regardless of his work, he seems to drum up strong opinions one way or the other. You either love him or hate him.

I, for one, have been a huge Baz fan for some time. I remember watching Moulin Rouge for the first time and thinking, “This man is a creative genius!” Needless to say, I was anticipating the creative light in which he would depict Gatsby.

Forgive me for the preface, but I felt that it was necessary since I have seen so much that goes against what I am about to say.

Let’s get to the actual review.

…………………………………………..THE REVIEW………………………………………………….

As expected, Baz’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is beautiful. The attention to detail is stunning, and the sets are glamorous. The costumes are fabulous, and the acting–superb.

The Acting:

leo as gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio embodies all that is Jay Gatsby. In the first party scene, we see the narrator, Nick Carraway, trying to find the host. Oblivious to what the he looks like, Nick chats with Gatsby while a jazzed up rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” builds in the background impeccably. Gatsby reveals his identity as the composition climaxes, fireworks shoot behind him, and Gatsby raises his glass as he mentions his name. The shot is perfection, and Leo owns it. He is not only believable as Gatsby, he’s down-right good. Nick describes Gatsby’s smile as “one of those rare smiles…that you may come across four or five times in life.” Leo certainly drank that sentence in as he flashed a smile that was unique to Gatsby–it was full of charisma, intrigue, money, and secrets. His body language throughout is calculated down to the last little move.

As the film progresses, we see him play up almost every conceivable emotion. There are times where he is witty and almost boy-like, and by the end of the film, he has conceded to the sheer desperation that overcomes Gatsby.

He’s everything we know the character to be–confident, beautiful, hopeful, fearful, insecure, and sometimes, all at once. He even makes “old sport” sound natural. I think this is a career best for DiCaprio, and he carries the film in a way that is impossible to deny.

Carey Mulligan plays a believable Daisy–she’s delicate, flighty, emotional, and vacant. Besides Gatsby, this role was perhaps the most difficult role to portray. Because her character is somewhat open for interpretation, I think people will have strong opinions of Carey’s performance.

My opinion: she was a strong choice, and I was impressed by the way that she handled the difficult back-and-forth nature of the character. She wasn’t just careless or just emotional. I thought she possessed the charm and sophistication needed for Daisy and even “the voice like money”. She is not quite idealized like she is in the book (but that’s open for interpretation, too, right?). The perspective shows the internal struggle that she deals with and almost paints her “airiness” as a facade to cover up for her bored attitude with life and anger towards her husband and his open infidelity.


Joel Edgerton gives a standout performance as Tom Buchanan. He really holds his own and is quite impressive. Elizabeth Debicki stars as Jordan Baker, and although she’s not featured as much as I had hoped, she’s fantastic when she is on screen. I was disappointed that the underlying relationship  between Nick and Jordan was not developed more, but you do see subtle glimpses of it.

Isla Fisher played a convincing Myrtle (although my husband thought she overdid it a bit), as did Jason Clarke as George Wilson. Amitabh Bachchan is perfection as Meyer Wolfsheim, and his scene with Gatsby and Nick in the underground speakeasy is exactly what I wanted it to be…perhaps, even better.

I enjoyed Tobey McGuire as Nick Carraway. I think he transitions well from the bug-eyed New York newcomer to the deeply emotional comrade of Gatsby’s that we see towards the end.

The Framing Device:


A lot of critics do not like the framing device used (with Nick writing from an asylum). I can respect that. I think this is one of the creative liberties Baz took to be able to use some of the prose that maybe he would not have been able to use otherwise, but I can understand the disdain for it, as well. It seems a bit unnecessary.

Matt Zoller Seitz of had something interesting to say about it:

This framing device is inferred from statements Fitzgerald made in “The Crack-Up,” and “Gatsby” often refers to itself as a book, so even though it’s not part of the source, it’s hardly a blasphemous indulgence; still, it’s one more buffer between viewer and story in a movie that already has plenty.

The Music:


One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is the music. Baz uses music to bring out deep emotion in his films, and the music used for this one works with flying colors. He connects with the audience in using modern day music that has a 20s jazz-age flare. Some of it is just for the purpose of evoking emotion (Florence’s “Over the Love”), but it succeeds in the job it is trying to do. The movie certainly wouldn’t have been the same without it.

I listened to an “All Things Considered” on NPR with one of the executive producers of the film, and he mentions that Fitzgerald emphasized the importance of the music of the day. They wanted to evoke those same feelings by connecting with the modern audience in that way. A favorite musical detail of mine was while Gatsby and Nick are on the way into the city and pass a “party car”, full of people having a good time while Jay-Z’s “H to the Izzo” blares in the background. The entire theater laughed with delight, and I remember thinking, “that’s pretty darn savvy.” It seemed unlikely, but it worked.


The Overview:

One of the biggest surprises for me was the way Baz managed to inject his style. I knew everything would be large and beautiful, but I didn’t know how he would handle the camera or the layering of elements. I hoped that we would see some of these Baz-specific qualities, and we certainly did. The 20s are described by the narrator as we hear layers of music and see layers of visuals–newspaper clippings, New York span shots, and quick-moving scenes from around the city. The entire film is colorful, rich, vivid, and even moody.

The opening party scene has interesting camera swoops and swirls, and the use of 3D worked well at placing you in the setting. The sweeping camera speeds across the bay from Gatsby’s house to the Buchanans and lands on the green light, which was flickering through the night and the fog. These shots are breathtaking and inescapably Baz.

Catherine Martin’s design throughout is authentic, thorough, and gorgeous. If she doesn’t win some type of Oscar for her work in this film, I think it will be a pure shame.


One of the most interesting scenes is the scene in which Gatsby comes to Nick’s house to see Daisy for the first time in 5 years. The set is stunning with more flowers in one place than I’ve ever seen. Baz does an excellent job of combining the humor of the situation with the seriousness and depth of it. You are laughing one moment, and the next is deeply emotional as we see Gatsby and Daisy rekindle what has been lost for all these years. Leo undoubtably shows his seasoned acting skills in this scene.

Another pivotal scene is the Plaza hotel scene towards the end. Baz breaks from the noise of the rest of the film and there’s almost something theatrical about it, which highlights the seriousness of the scene. We see the main characters break into some of the most emotional acting yet, as Gatsby’s dreams are fulfilled and destroyed almost in the same breath.

One of my biggest criticisms would be a smaller detail. In the book, it is explicit that Myrtle is distraught when she sees Tom in the car with, who she think is his wife. In fact, the other woman is Jordan Baker, but I think this was a missed opportunity for a rather important moment:

“Her expression was curiously familiar–it was an expression that I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable until I realized that her eyes, wide with jealous terror, were fixed not on Tom but on Jordan Baker, whom she took to be his wife.”

It describes fury, and in the film, you don’t see a shot of just Jordan in the car, the way that Myrtle did from that garage window. Rather, you see wider shots of all three of them. I think this could have added some understanding of why she ran out into the road later.

Gatsby’s funeral shot was sad and beautiful. He is surrounded by all of the candles and flowers in the world, yet with no one beside him. Tobey’s performance peaks as he desperately tries to get anyone to show up. In the book, you’ll remember that one party guest did actually show, along with his father, but in the film, the funeral scene is more of an idea than an actual portrayal. You see Gatsby alone, with nothing to show for all of his Daisy-getting ambitions. The shallowness and emptiness of the people he tried so desperately to impress come to light in a stark way with this shot, as Nick’s anger and depression comes full throttle.

In Short:

A lot of people do not like that one of the main things emphasized is the romance, in a novel filled with important warnings and themes of greed, materialism, and death. I don’t think those themes were missed entirely. They are certainly present and treated in a complex and, sometimes, subtle way.


However, Baz is a fan of the tragic romance (have you seen Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge?), so to think that it would not be highlighted, or even shown from this point of view, is to go into the film with unrealistic expectations. I think he wanted to show the complexities of Gatsby, the illusion of it all, and the intense yearning to repeat the past. In this regard, I think he not only succeeded, he nailed it.

In short, the film is beautiful, larger-than-life, intense, energetic, and emotional. While the movie is very Baz, I felt that it was also very Fitzgerald.

 I enjoyed watching Gatsby through the eyes of Baz, and I thought he captured the opulence and mind-set of the time. I appreciate the fact that he followed the book so closely and used the prose as much as possible. See this film through a creative and open-mind, and remember that Fitzgerald intentionally left many details open for interpretation (which is why people still love to talk about it and debate it almost 90 years later). Like Gatsby’s desire for the things he can’t have, this film will leave many wanting everything they read into the book. But, it will leave many satisfied and awe-struck by the beauty and the sadness that is Gatsby.

So what were your thoughts on the film? Comment below!

{images nabbed from the official web site}

1 Comment

  1. Melissa 05/15/2013 / 8:02 pm

    I am all the more excited to see that film now!! Thanks Sara Beth :)

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