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Leo & Luhrmann Make The Great Gatsby Matter

Leo & Luhrmann Make <i>The Great Gatsby</i> Matter

DVD Release Date: August 27, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: May 10, 2013
Rating: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 143 min. 
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Amitabh Bachchan

In a cinematic era dominated by the hugely successful Harry Potter and Twilight adaptations aimed at younger audiences, is there place for a fresh spin on a classic novel with no vampires or wizards?

Warner Brothers thinks so, choosing to pick not just any highly regarded novel for its first big release of the 2013 summer movie season. The studio has backed an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, considered by many to be the greatest American novel. The risk of such an undertaking is hard to underestimate. This story is driven not by special effects but by the characters—the type of film usually released among year-end awards contenders, not alongside the latest Iron Man and Star Trek films. Although contemporary audiences may have read the novel in high school, how excited will they be about a story set in the 1920s—before their parents were born?

Warner wisely had Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom director Baz Luhrmann helm the new film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, coming off yet another major box-office success in Django Unchained. Luhrmann brings verve and cinematic energy to this adaptation that might not sit right with the novel’s fans, but will please viewers who come to see, first and foremost, a movie. This version of Gatsby is anything but staid.

We get to know the title character through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man 3), Gatsby’s Long Island neighbor and the narrator. The film’s framing device—Nick telling Gatsby’s story as part of a treatment plan at a sanitarium—is unique to this Gatsby. He lives near Gatsby’s mansion, the site of one lavish party after another. Yet Nick doesn’t know much about the mysterious owner.

Nick also lives across the bay from his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, An Education) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, Warrior). Things aren’t going well between the married couple, with Tom flagrantly carrying on with Myrtle (Isla Fisher, Bachelorette), the wife of a garage owner (Jason Clark). Gatsby reveals to Nick that he has unfinished business with Daisy: They’d met five years earlier and had fallen in love, but life had taken them in different directions. Although Daisy married Tom, Gatsby is determined to win Daisy back.

Luhrmann unleashes his camera to capture the opulent décor and colorful costumes at Gatsby’s extravagant parties, set to a contemporary hip-hop soundtrack that should feel out of place but works surprisingly well. The high-energy first half-hour of the film is sure to prove divisive to audiences, some of whom may find Luhrmann’s approach to the material overwhelming. As striking as the party sequences are, the film’s greatest visual strengths come in the film’s quieter moments: exterior shots of the local homes, a misty dock, or Gatsby and Nick in isolation.

Perhaps the most curious choice Luhrmann and Warner Brothers made is to shoot the dialogue-heavy film in 3D. But fans of the technology know that, at its best, 3D isn’t about things poking out of the screen at the audience. Instead, 3D when well used provides greater depth to the shots—an extra layer of visual richness. On that count, The Great Gatsby in 3D is effective, if not in the same league as Martin Scorsese’s 3D Hugo. Still, it’s hard to know if the three-dimensional treatment is a net gain. The vivid interior scenes—particularly the party scenes—likely would play stronger if they weren’t hindered by the inherent darkness of the 3D presentation.

The narrative also sags in spots. By design, Luhrmann doesn’t try to sustain the early pace and energy he gives The Great Gatsby, which settles into a more standard character-driven drama during its second hour. But acknowledging some unevenness in the pacing isn’t an admission that the film sags. Luhrmann wisely injects humor into a few key moments, lightening the mood as Gatsby’s obsession grows into desperation and as Tom awakens to his wife’s unhappiness.

DiCaprio carries the film, and Edgerton is an effective brute. If there’s a weak central character, it’s Mulligan’s Daisy. Why is Gatsby so infatuated with her? We’re not sure, but the fact that we ask ourselves the question is by no means fatal. After all, love isn’t always easy to understand—or, as the soundtrack reminds us, "love is blindness."

Luhrmann’s busy, bright treatment of Fitzgerald’s novel puts across the different sides of Gatsby—his partying facade and inner pain—and preserves the story’s somber conclusion. This new version of Gatsby might not be talked about decades from now, as the novel has been since its publication, but it’s sure to be one of the summer movie season’s brighter lights.


  • Language/Profanity: “God knows where, God knows how…”; “for Christ’s sake”; racially charged remarks; “I’ll be d-mned”; “go-dam-”; “my God”
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Nick struggles with alcohol and says “all of us drank too much”; smoking and drinking/drunkenness; pills are taken
  • Sex/Nudity: Myrtle rubs against Tom; Tom spanks Myrtle; sounds of sex from a bedroom; Tom says to Nick, “I know you like to watch”; kissing; women dance in their underwear; suggestive dancing; two people have sex under the sheets
  • Violence/Crime: A mobster; Gatsby is caught up in shady schemes; fight at a party; a man gets repeatedly punched; car accident; a gun shot and blood from a wound; implied suicide by gunshot
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: It’s said that during the Jazz era, “the morals were looser … the liquor cheaper”; Tom is engaged in an affair that is obvious to all; Gatsby is said to be second cousin to the devil; Nick struggles with whether it’s right to bring the married Daisy together with Gatsby; Gatsby is said to be “in his own mind the son of God”; a man claims, “God sees everything”

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Publication date: May 10, 2013