Seeking out the

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The Great Gatsby

Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Produced by Baz Luhrmann, Lucy Fisher, Catherine Knapman, Catherine Martin, and Douglas Wick
Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, and Amitabh Bachchan
Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Editing: Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond, and Matt Villa
Music: Craig Armstrong
Runtime: 143 min
Release Date: 10 May 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel is not the disaster I thought it might be. Luhrmann is a filmmaker I have avoided until now, as he seemed from a distance to embody all the things I dislike the most about modern style-over-substance cinema. But I wasn’t going to miss this latest adaptation of what many consider to be the greatest American novel--a book I have always thought could be easily adapted into a terrific film. Unfortunately, like the 1974 film by Jack Clayton, this version only scratches the surface of the novel’s cinematic potential.

One of the reasons I think this book should make a great movie is that its pleasures lie not only in Fitzgerald’s prose, but also in his straightforward narrative and the unmistakably clear themes that could effortlessly transfer to the medium of film. Unfortunately, Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce make the all-too-common mistake of simply turning many of the novel’s passages into voice-over narration. They also devise an uninspired framing device: having the narrator, Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, look back on the events of the book and tell them to someone created for the film. The movie opens with Carraway in a sanitarium and he begins by telling the story to his shrink and then starts to write it down in the form of a novel that will become The Great Gatsby.

This framing device would be fine if it were simply book-ending the film or coming back once or twice to make a few observations, but instead we get a running commentary from Maguire explaining each moment in the movie to us as it happens on screen. This is completely unnecessary--the internal feelings of the characters are not beyond the ability of actors to convey, and the events and themes of the novel are not difficult to comprehend. The voiceover approach robs the audience of a genuine experience of events and a real connection to the characters.

Luhrmann’s hip-hop-Disney-World approach to the material is actually far less distracting than the voiceover is. The computer-generated environments don’t do much for me, but I was surprised that they didn’t upstage the actors as much as I thought they would. The three leads all fit their respective roles quite well. Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire are at least as good as Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston are in the 1974 film--though that film has a better supporting cast and does a much better job at depicting what the lives of the idle rich are really like.

Maybe someday we’ll get the great film version of The Great Gatsby that I know can be made. Until then we beat on…