Directed by: Baz Luhrmann.
Written by: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce based on the novel F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim), Steve Bisley (Dan Cody), Richard Carter (Herzog), Adelaide Clemens (Catherine), Jack Thompson (Dr. Walter Perkins).
I really wanted to love Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby – after all, there is so much to admire about the film, and you have to admit Luhrmann goes for broke with it. He pulls out all the stops as he tries to make F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slender, slight literary masterwork into a gargantuan romantic epic. At times, it even makes a certain degree of sense that Luhrmann’s film is seemingly drowning in excess – in a way, that is precisely what many of the characters do. But finally, Luhrmann just throws too much at the audience for the movie to have any real resonance. There is no emotional pull to the film – it’s all style and little substance. And that’s a shame, because in Leonardo DiCaprio Luhrmann found the perfect Gatsby, and Carey Mulligan makes a wonderful Daisy as well. But the movie never slows down enough for their story to really have much impact. To paraphrase an old saying about a Broadway musical – “You come out whistling the sets”.
The Great Gatsby is one of those novels that almost everyone has managed to read at some point in their lives – whether it’s in one classroom or another, you probably don’t get through much education without picking up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. While it has never been a favorite of mine, the novel does have a simple perfection to it – it’s basically the story of a man who loves the wrong woman, and another man who loves the first man. There’s more to it than that obviously, but I don’t really feel like writing a term paper on the American Dream or class distinctions in America, where everyone is supposed to be equal. Basically, you know the story by now – poor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) comes to New York a failed writer and current bond tradesman and moves into a little shack in West Egg, Long Island where the Noveau Riche live. Across the bay in East Egg, is where all the old money resides. Right beside Carraway’s shack is a massive mansion, owned by Gatsby – a man talked about often, that no one really knows. He holds huge parties where everyone in New York shows up and stays for the weekend. Across the Bay, Carraway’s cousin Daisy lives with her brutish, old money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Carraway is first drawn into this world and finally repulsed by it. He comes to love Gatsby, and hate everyone else.
The events in Luhrmann’s movie are the same as the book. I’m sure someone more familiar with the novel can tell you about small changes, but for the most part, the story is how it is in Fitzgerald’s novel – Luhrmann doesn’t add or subtract much from the proceedings. But as Roger Ebert’s old saying goes – “a movie isn’t about what it’s about – it’s about how it’s about it”. And therein lays the difference between Luhrmann’s version, and say, Jack Clayton’s 1973 bore of an adaptation. Luhrmann’s film is many, many things – but boring is not one of them.
The first half of the film plays almost like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. For more than an hour, the film is essentially a giant blur of one party after another, only occasionally settling down so that Luhrmann can get in the basic plot points of Gatsby. This part of the movie is big and loud, with Luhrmann’s trademarked rapid editing, and adaptations of modern songs into a period setting – oddly the work of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the rest of the modern music he uses fits in well with what Fitzgerald is doing. Like our “hero” Carraway, it’s hard not to get caught up in the flow in this part of the movie – gliding along on the amazing costumes, art direction and music, seduced by DiCaprio’s ever confident, calm, reassuring voice and dazzling eyes (I never quite understood what people thought DiCaprio was so amazingly good looking – I do now). I enjoyed this part of the movie more than the second half – but was also kind of glad when it was over – if Luhrmann continued at that pace for the entire two and half hour running time, I would have stumbled out into the parking lot with a massive headache.
But to Luhrmann’s credit, he knows he has to slow down – at least a bit – in the second half, and let the performances take over. In DiCaprio, he cast the perfect Gatsby, and no matter what faults I see in the movie, none of them relate to DiCaprio’s performance. He valiantly tries – and often even succeeds – in pushing all the excess on the screen aside, so you’re focused only on this man whose major sin is that he loves a woman who he’s too good for. As Daisy, Cary Mulligan is also pretty much perfectly cast – she makes you see how she is able to draw everyone close to her – make everyone love her – and also why eventually, people end up hating her. These two are wonderful in the movie.
The rest of the cast however misses the mark by a large margin. I’m not sure what the hell Joel Edgerton is doing as Tom – the Australian actor affects a strange accent that doesn’t fit in, and right from the start he is nothing more than a one-dimensional bully. I have faith that given a chance, Isla Fisher may well have been able to make a wonderful Myrtle, with her exaggerated accent, but the movie never really gives her anything to do. The same may be said of Jason Clarke as her mechanic husband George – but he’s not a character at all in the movie – really, he’s almost an offensive caricature of poor people. Perhaps these flaws could be forgiven if Tobey Maguire been better as Nick – but he’s horribly miscast, and never really finds another note to play other than wide eyed naive or stumbling drunk. It doesn’t help that he narrates the movie – using Fitzgerald’s own words, and that Luhrmann, for some unknown reasons, often insists on having the words scroll across the screen, or fall from the sky, or in some other equally ridiculous way show them on screen.
In the end, I think Luhrmann has made a film better suited for people who don’t know Fitzgerald’s novel at all rather than for fans of it. This often ends up being the case, because readers inherently envision a novel in their head while reading it, and very seldom does the directors vision equate with the readers. Perhaps viewers who don’t know the novel won’t be as disappointed in this version – will be more able to flow along on the images and a few of the great performances in the movie, and not realize just how thoroughly Luhrmann has buried the emotions of the book in order to make his style the star. I had no emotional reaction to the tragic events that end the movie, because Luhrmann doesn’t settle down long enough for them to have any impact at all. He’s just hurrying on to the next scene – he never lets the movie really breath.
Luhrmann had a similar problem with his modern day version of Romeo and Juliet. That movie wasn’t really Shakespeare, but it sure the hell was something. I suppose you could say the same thing about Gatsby – it’s not really Fitzgerald, but damn it, it is something. Luhrmann’s best film remains Moulin Rouge – and I think it’s because that movie had such a simplistic storyline (poor man falls in love with doomed beauty – and nothing else) that it didn’t really matter that the style overwhelmed the substance – there was so little substance to begin with that without the style, there would have been nothing. But when Luhrmann adapts an already established masterpiece – whether by Shakespeare or Fitzgerald – he drains it of what made it so special to begin with. We don’t see the genius of Shakespeare on screen in his Romeo and Juliet – and we don’t really see Fitzgerald’s genius in The Great Gatsby. The movie is certainly something – and there is so much to admire in the costume, art direction, music, cinematography, the performances by DiCaprio and Mulligan and even in the use of 3-D (which typically I’m not a fan of) that I am almost tempted to say forget the movies flaws, and just sit back and enjoy the excess. But I find I cannot quite do that. There is so much to admire about Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby – but finally too much not to admire that it overwhelms everything else in the movie.