5 Ways Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby Could Have Been Great


Baz Luhrmann’s splashy, extravagant, highly watchable 3-D remake of The Great Gatsby is certainly a vast improvement on the lackluster 1974 Robert Redford movie, but those hoping for a classic adaptation worthy of the Great American Novel are going to be disappointed. Here are five ways Luhrmann’s Gatsby could have been great.

5. A Better Lead Actor.

Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t an accomplished performer and his screen magnetism was largely linked to his boyish appeal. Now that’s gone, and nothing more interesting has come along to take its place. DiCaprio can’t convincingly play anguish, nor can he seem physically threatening (a scene in which he nearly comes to blows with Joel Edgerton, who plays his romantic rival Tom Buchanan, is almost laughable; Edgerton could flatten DiCaprio without even trying).

A better choice would have been Johnny Depp, who, like Gatsby, came from nowhere (Kentucky in the case of the actor, North Dakota in the case of the screen character) or Christian Bale, who has already showcased his ability to play the charming playboy in the Batman movies. It would have been a natural fit: Batman is basically Gatsby with a cape.

4. A More Disciplined Musical Score.

Luhrmann, whose films have been strongly associated with music (the DiCaprio-Claire Danes version of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge,) obviously thought Gatsby would be a great way to work in one of his trademark mashups. Luhrmann cleverly deploys new versions of songs like Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” the latter done like a 1920s torch song that would have been listened to on a 78 rpm record.

But there are also contemporary rap songs featuring Kanye West and Jay-Z (an executive producer of the film), which seem thrown in to capture the imagination of today’s youth and throw off the sense of being transported to another time. Young people who aren’t interested in your themes and subject matter are not likely to be bought off with a little hip-hop, though. A soundtrack consisting entirely of familiar contemporary songs done in 1920s style would have been ingenious.  

3. A Snappier Third Act.

The movie, which is set mostly in and around the sumptuous Long Island Sound mansion of the mysterious zillionaire Jay Gatsby, makes excellent use of Tobey Maguire as the narrator and Gatsby’s friend Nick Carraway.

The movie features eye-popping sets, 3D effects, and costumes. The party scenes glitter. And when Gatsby finally reveals what he’s up to -- using Carraway, the cousin of his ex-girlfriend Daisy (Carey Mulligan) whom he met at a World War I-era party in Louisville, Kentucky, to reconnect with his dream girl -- the movie turns into an appealing love story.

But after the dazzle of the first 90 minutes, the third act turns on three long, talky scenes that lack dramatic tension, especially one set at the Plaza Hotel in New York City with Jay, Tom, Daisy and Nick that should be as gripping as a thriller. Luhrmann, whose talent lies mainly in devising elaborate song and dance scenes, is unable to keep the scene tight and the movie fades just when it should be finding an extra gear.

Similarly, an overwrought performance by Jason Clarke, as a gas station owner who plays a key role in the final minutes, makes his big scene maudlin instead of emotionally engaging.

2. An Unforgettable Daisy.

Carey Mulligan is fine as the girl in whom Gatsby invests all his dreams, but Mulligan, talented though she is, is essentially a character actress rather than a star who lights up the screen. She’s pretty, but she’s not the kind of figure that it’s easy to picture a rich and powerful man moving mountains for. In order to feel what Gatsby is feeling, we have to be as transfixed and obsessed by Daisy as he is.

How about Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman or Keira Knightley?

1. A More Human Gatsby.

Luhrmann misses an opportunity when he cuts around the big confessional scene in which Gatsby pours out his heart about his hard-scrabble, Don Draper-like upbringing to Carraway.

This should have been the moment in which Gatsby transforms before our eyes from all-powerful playboy to scheming striver, but it takes place almost entirely offscreen. Not coincidentally, we never quite become emotionally attached to this somewhat oddball character, and the end seems more like a bummer than American literature’s greatest tragedy.