Contrasting Critic: 2013’s ‘The Great Gatsby’


If there’s one movie that I will argue the value of until the day I die, it’s The Great Gatsby. Sure, it was drawing from perhaps the finest piece of 20th century literature. So this 2013 version of Gatsby on film came with quite a bit of pomp and circumstance, but only to be quickly discarded by the critics.

The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes states, “While certainly ambitious—and every bit as visually dazzling as one might expect—Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby emphasizes visual splendor at the expense of its source material’s vibrant heart.”

They got one thing right: The source material has a vibrant heart. First off, let me admit to what is wrong with The Great Gatsby.

One of the big complaints about the film is its use of modern music in the 1920’s Jazz Age. This is a stylistic choice Luhrmann took to modernize Gatsby for younger audiences, simple as that.

I’m not fond of hearing the voices of Kanye West and in a movie like this. It may take some people straight out of the setting of the film, which is a shame if it does. But as for the critics, this is the same group who praised Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! for being wholly original with modern music in a film set in the year 1900.

If they’re not turned off by Nirvana in 1900, they shouldn’t be complaining about Lana Del Rey in the 1920’s.

Instead of making certain performers like Del Rey or Fergie sound like they’re from such an era (Del Rey naturally sounds like she is), they should’ve remastered the music of the 20’s. Or at least have new people perform that era’s songs. Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Duke Ellington would sound just as vibrant if brought up-to-date. It’d also be more authentic.

But Luhrmann went to a well he’d already had critical success at, so why not again?

Besides the music, I’ll admit the flamboyant style sometimes weighs more than the substance. But it is not stylized at the expense of it. People get caught up in the look of the movie and say it’s merely trying to be a shiny object to dangle in front of us, as if the film mistakes us for felines.

But the same nuances that people missed when they read Gatsby for the first time in high school, seemed to be missed by many watching the film. But it’s hard to blame them when everything else is textually, and sometimes literally, loud.

I have no problem with detractors saying the grandiosity of the movie didn’t allow them to get attached to the characters. It’s hard to believe, but it is a matter of subjectivity, of course. But that’s why we have repeat viewings. Because I’ve enjoyed and learned more from this film each time I’ve watched it.

We’ll get into a few other examples that fell short in Luhrmann’s Gatsby. But since there’s so much positive to say about this film, let’s break it down into segments so my mind doesn’t wander between a thousand thoughts.

Narrative/Direction: A common complaint for book-to-movie adaptations is that they betray the source material. Luhrmann, on the other hand, uses it every chance he gets in this film to insert dialogue straight from the book.

So, if you have a problem with the dialogue, which is delivered surprisingly well by the actors, then you’re not a fan of what is commonly regarded as the greatest novel of the last century. Which is fine and all, but it’s worth noting. But the real problem for most critics is the way the dialogue is used, and that Luhrmann misses the deeper points and themes of the book.

One of the biggest themes in the book is the lack of values caused by the endless and meaningless search for pleasure. There was an overindulgence of materialism in this time period, where greed ruled the day (even more than today) and the battle between old money and new money waged. Everyone had their chance to rise to the top, and they’d take whatever path (even an illegal one) they needed for them to reach that pinnacle of wealth.

Luhrmann was accused of presenting the film like it was a huge social theme park ride. They said it was too bright, too loud, overindulgent on its style, and trying to aggressively grab your attention in every frame. And you know what? That’s the point! Because that’s the 20’s F. Scott Fitzgerald was so cynical about.

Too many people are looking to be spoon-fed the dark realities and superficiality behind this era. But the camera work portrays it for you. After seeing all of Luhrmann’s other works, you might argue that all his movies slant this over-stylized way, and that he went more overboard here. But I have every intention that he did so to properly represent themes of the book. Not only from what you see in these lavish parties and their extreme palates, but from how you see them.

It’s an excessively shot movie, with excessive vistas, depicting an excessive time and place.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. /

Now, let’s discuss the basics of the narrative.

In regards to mere plot points, the movie is well-paced and whisks away the viewer in the first few minutes with its introductions. It may seem a little too whimsical at times for a movie that’s supposed to have serious social and moral messages. But once again, this plays into the almost fairy tale life this generation was pretending to live in.

The movie also hits on most of the key parts from the book. An example is the hotel room scene, which is a climax of sorts for Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom in terms of their characteristics. It seeps through to all of their true natures.

Luhrmann congests the room, sucks all the glitz and glam up and throws realization at them. And it’s acted out so clearly without overdoing it. Some think it gives Carraway nothing to do but be a fly that doesn’t want to be on the wall. But he’s not the focus here, though he still gives his narrative thoughts through the scene in delicately placed spots.

There isn’t too much time spent on the more mundane moments of the film. There is, however, times where the story doesn’t sit on a few crucial scenes.

This is especially when Gatsby is explaining his past, or when Nick Carraway is doing the same for different characters. For one, I don’t mind Carraway’s narration. I’m not usually big on constant narration of things I want to see for my own eyes. But the movie blends those moments in well. Even when they come at times more than halfway through the film.

It’s hard to do a fast-paced backstory where we learn a good deal about the character but also don’t get an overload of exposition, and the movie balanced between those extremes. I would’ve liked to hear Gatsby say more of it himself, but it’s not much of a blemish on the overall film.

The moments between Gatsby and Daisy are few-and-far in between. But that’s because the story is through the eyes of Carraway. Luhrmann didn’t want to abandon his storyteller, and that’s admirable. Some of what we see through his telling of the two seems to be in montage-form. An example would be the scenes after their first time together at Gatsby’s house.

But Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby cures our need for stakes and a connection, and that leads into our next discussion.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. /

Characters: By the end of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann captures the beauty wrapped around the tragedy of the story. And that’s one of the biggest selling points for me. But it wouldn’t have been done without some Leo magic.

Marking down all the layers of this character DiCaprio was able to capture in the film was quite the task. So much so that it’s possible to believe he would’ve been nominated for this movie, and not The Wolf of Wall Street, had this one received better reviews.

He was mysterious, inspiring, flawed but extravagant. He toed the line of playboy and recluse, never wavering too much to either side. For one of the most conflicted and hopeful characters in all of literature, he hit every angle of him. This is one thing most critics and myself can agree on.

He wasn’t merely Leonardo DiCaprio acting, like in The Revenant. No, this Leo was consumed by, and became this character. Never for a second do you doubt that he had such grand ambition, an ever-stretching grasp of a perfectionist who fully believed he could single-handedly change the past.

From the most tender moments with Daisy, to the most mysterious ones around Wolfsheim, to the most manic against Tom in the hotel, it was all so believable. Anything was possible with this character, and DiCaprio showed us so many of those possibilities in such a precise manner.

Luckily, he was also able to fully differentiate this role in comparison to the one he’d done of Howard Hughes less than a decade before in The Aviator.

But as great as he is, his character had to be connected to Carey Mulligan’s Daisy. That’s where everyone asks this question: is there even a reason for Gatsby to do all these things for this woman? Though this love story is set up on a tee and ready for one intense and magnificent swing, many critics don’t think it’s ever allowed to take flight.

As far as Mulligan goes, her performance is certainly an accurate depiction of the character. She’s a hopeless romantic on one side, and contrasts that as a typical flapper who’s fragile and runs back home with her tail tucked at the hint of danger.

The character isn’t supposed to be likeable by the end, but those two sides of her are showcased throughout the movie.

Now, as for the two of them and convincing the audience of their love, that’s a tougher chore. Luhrmann gets to their reunion as fast as he can without sparing the buildup. And gosh, that first scene with broken clocks and tea is one that’ll tense anyone up.

A lot of people know what it’s like to see a person they shared such intimacies with after several years and the awkwardness that comes with it. Now imagine that magnified by five for Gatsby.

It’s a wonderful scene, and Luhrmann drags it out at just the proper length. Then the collective air comes out of the room, and we’re given the payoff of their soft voices. This is another scene where I would’ve liked for the director to take some liberty and show their interaction while Carraway was gone.

I understand the story is from his perspective, but that’s the one moment where we needed more insight. There’s enough in the movie to believe they’d be in love, but there may not be enough for some to believe he’d go to such great lengths for her.

Does it sell you on their love? That’s the question that holds the key to the believability and integrity of the film. Though it’s not exactly what the story was intended to be about below the surface, it is the deciding factor whether most will like it or not. And because of the passion showed by DiCaprio’s Gatsby, it gets you there, no matter if you think her character is shallow or not.

The investment of his wishes and the failure that follows mean so much simply because of how far he’d go.

Part of the tragedy of The Great Gatsby is the fact that social standing gets in the way of their relationship. He goes against what he once dreamed to please her, but in the end, there’s still a gaping hole between them.

With all of that said, it makes his wants believable, and her flimsy nature too. It’s his infatuation with the idea of being loved by her that drives the story forward.

Then there’s the supporting characters, Nick, Tom, and Jordan. Joel Edgerton as Tom isn’t menacing as the villain. But he hits on the three core definitions that cause us to despise him: arrogance, brashness, and manipulative of those weaker than him. This was a big step forward in what has become a very underrated career for the actor.

And for being in a big budget movie with little experience, Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan was rather refreshing. She just wasn’t given enough to do.

That leads me to Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire. The critics hated this performance. The first thing they attack is the opening, where Carraway is in a psych ward. They bash the mere fact that he’d be in one given how calm and composed the character acts throughout the movie.

I guess if you’re trapped in a world where people are in a constant daze, and you find one friend who sees the world differently, and he gets shot and killed, then there’s no way you could eventually end up at a psych ward. Give me a break.

The way it’s set up, with him actually telling someone the story and writing it down, was a neat way of narration where it didn’t feel awkward or forced. Some of the 92-year-old lines he says can sound weird coming out of his mouth, but they’d sound just as weird coming out of the mouths of anyone else these days.

As far as Carraway being an extension of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he doesn’t capture the same magic as the writer would have as the character, but he does serve the story well. The suspension of judgement keeps him well-tempered as he builds trust with the audience. He’s the passive on-looker for much of the movie, who at the right moments shows his empathy and good judgement. Then he becomes the yelling, authoritative one when he had to be (shooing away the press around Gatsby’s casket).

As far as characteristics go, Maguire’s performance doesn’t pit him as close to Fitzgerald as the character in the book does. But the idea by some that he’s not enough of the “everyman” to level out Gatsby’s nature is disrespecting the character. Carraway was quite the dreamer (like Fitzgerald) himself, though he covers it up for much of the movie because he has to.

Maguire’s performance serves as a gateway to the world, and you almost feel beside him as you go through it together. A lot of people have a Tobey Maguire problem. They don’t want him narrating a movie, and that’s fine. There’s plenty of actors I wouldn’t want to be narrating a movie either.

But seeing as I don’t mind the actor, I thought they were faithful to telling the story through his eyes. He had great chemistry with Leo’s Gatsby, staying grounded when he was needed to and still telling the story with passion.

I could go on about the look of the film, but that’s something that doesn’t need as much defending. It had enough flair to cross out the modern music, with production design and costume design that both won Oscars.

The CGI is at times too much for me, because I’m a guy that likes to go as practical as can be. But for every time they overdid it, they did something else I didn’t realize was green-screened. Overall, it captured the era’s look, no matter the songs that were played along with it.

Stacking it up to the Best Picture nominees, it can’t honestly be much worse than Gravity or American Hustle. Those movies had plenty of holes in them too, and are both praised too much for “style”.

In the end, The Great Gatsby has some flaws, and occasionally wants to impress you too much. Kind of like Gatsby. But it has more depth than what people give it credit for, strong performances across the board, and a unique vibe most movies can’t match.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.