Gatsby? What Gatsby? Luhrmann can’t repeat the past in remake

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By Sam Bertschmann

While not an entirely faithful adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, Baz Luhrmann’s latest film is entertaining in its own right and well worth seeing.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the mysterious titular character and gives an impressive, captivating performance. He effectively guides Jay Gatsby through his evolution from an elusive, Oz-like figure to a charming, if shady, socialite to an utterly broken man, torn apart by his inability to repeat the past.

Though Luhrmann’s Gatsby differs somewhat from Fitzgerald’s, DiCaprio commits to the character written for him. His New York accent is awkward and unconvincing, but this apparent flaw in his performance instead serves his character well; Gatsby’s manner of speech is an affectation consistent with his entire self-reinvention.

Having also adapted the screenplay, Luhrmann portrays Gatsby as more sympathetic than Fitzgerald may have intended. While in the novel Gatsby’s desire for Daisy Buchanan seems to stem more from her worth than any true love for her—narrator Nick Carraway observes that her voice is full of money, a line omitted from the film—Luhrmann’s Gatsby undoubtedly pines for Daisy out of sincere adoration. Here, these characters act as a more traditional Hollywood couple; Gatsby, pure of heart, becomes a tragic romantic hero when Daisy ultimately rejects him in favor of her husband, Tom.

Much of the rest of the cast delivers solid performances. None of the actors appear horribly miscast, though none embody their characters in the same way DiCaprio fully becomes Gatsby.

Carey Mulligan plays Daisy, Gatsby’s youthful lover, as flaky and bored as her literary counterpart. Joel Edgerton plays the snobby, adulterous Tom; both Mulligan and Edgerton are convincing enough in their portrayals of Daisy and Tom, though neither steals the show.

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, and in what seems to be an effort to include much of the novel’s elegant prose in the film, Nick writes the story of Gatsby as a means of recovering from his traumatic experiences in East Egg, West Egg and the Valley of Ashes. Like Mulligan and Edgerton, Maguire’s performance as Nick is pleasant but unremarkable.

The Great Gatsby is visually stunning, bringing the “Roaring ‘20s” into 2013 with elaborate special effects, vivid set design and outrageous costumes. The film seems to rely heavily on CGI—even the actors appear to be created this way at certain points throughout the movie—giving it an even glossier feel in keeping with the gilded nature of this time period. This exuberance is characteristic of Luhrmann’s style, since he also directed the ornate Romeo + Juliet (1996), in which DiCaprio starred opposite Claire Danes, and Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Scored by Jay-Z, the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby blends 1920s jazz with contemporary pop, rock and hip-hop, including a cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” by Emeli Sandé and the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, set to both horns and synthesizer. This enhances the reckless, exhilarating tone of the film; the scenes at Gatsby’s mansion often have the feel of a glorified frat party.

Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” serves as the love theme for Gatsby and Daisy, featured in different forms—sometimes instrumental, sometimes a jazzy party tune—throughout the film as the two lovers rekindle their long-dormant relationship. While its earnestness may not suit Fitzgerald’s couple, it perfectly expresses Luhrmann’s Gatsby’s persisting love for Daisy.

Luhrmann takes on an admittedly Herculean task in adapting Fitzgerald’s novel, easily one of the best and most complex pieces of American literature ever written. While it flounders as a faithful retelling of its source material, Luhrmann’s bold directorial choices suggest that this may not have been his intention in the first place. Using Fitzgerald’s story and characters, he tells a modern tale of greed and betrayal. As a film independent of the book on which it is based, The Great Gatsby is compelling from start to finish.

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