GreatGatsbycoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  No
2013, 142 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying, and brief language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy

If your children are of high school age, Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby is a worthwhile film to watch together. Certainly it’s superior to the dreadfully slow-paced 1974 adaptation. But it helps if you’ve read the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel first, as many do in high school. Then the fun comes from comparing (and talking about) the ways you’ve imagined scenes versus the ways in which Luhrmann depicts (or deconstructs) them.

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is a leading contender for the elusive title of Great American Novel. It’s a document of the Jazz Age, when the Charleston, bathtub gin, speakeasies, and post-WWI euphoria kept Americans on a constant high until the stock market crashed. Though Luhrmann pulls a few tricks (fast pans, pull-backs and other over-the-top elements) out of his Moulin Rouge! bag and also intercuts the party-style rap of Jay-Z with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” he still does a pretty good job of capturing the manic grandeur of Gatsby’s parties and moving the narrative along. 

Fitzgerald’s novel is about the American dream, especially as it’s fueled by the love of an unattainable woman. It’s not exactly clear in this film that Gatsby was driven to acquire wealth and moved just across the bay from his old flame, Daisy, because she turned him down five years earlier, and the backstory of how he got his start is covered in a rather hokey flashback. Likewise, Luhrmann’s treatment of the Valley of Ashes is so crazily post-Apocalyptic you almost expect to see Mel Gibson and his buddies roll up. Yet other scenes—like the billowing white introduction to Daisy, or a scene with Gatsby’s multi-colored shirts that seemed slightly silly even in the book—are so well done that the latter finally makes sense.

GreatGatsbyscreenThe film’s strength is its visual style and Luhrmann’s daring high-wire act. The buzz was that the Australian director went way over the top again, but our family was surprised to recognize many lines and scenes taken directly from the book, without “all that jazz.” Some segments are more effective than others, and that includes the performances.

Carrie Mulligan is superb as Daisy, capturing the breathlessness and vibrancy of the character—yet she’s so sympathetic that we don’t get the sense of spoiled-rich carelessness that’s in the novel, or that would make her better suited for Tom than Gatsby. Leonardo DiCaprio is convincing as Gatsby in the latter part of the film, but in the first half he seems to be searching for the right tone and accent. Some scenes are played with comedy that weren’t comic in the book, and I could swear I heard traces of DiCaprio’s southern accent from Django Unchained, when Gatsby was supposed to be from Mid-America. And Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband, Tom, puffs out his chest and speaks with so much bluster that, given his moustache and a passing resemblance, he reminds you of Woody Allen’s comic Hemingway from Midnight in Paris. He seems less cruel and racist in this version. Only Tobey Maguire seems consistently “right” as the film’s narrator, Nick Carraway.

Despite those irregularities, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is still an enjoyable film. I don’t know that it would be appreciated, though, by children who haven’t first read the book—which, by the way, is more descriptively violent than the film.