2 / 5 stars
You don’t have to be an F. Scott Fitzgerald purist to dislike Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. It’s easy for anyone to find wrongdoing with this new-look adaptation, even those who embrace co-writer/director Luhrmann’s oft-criticized earlier films (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!)
For a guy whose movies celebrate with gleaming glitz, over-saturated color and music-layered melodrama, the Australian Luhrmann has delivered a surprisingly misguided bore. If conventional wisdom says that Fitzgerald’s classic of 1920s opulence is “unfilmable,” then this new version of The Great Gatsby makes that consensus fact. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
Luhrmann does what you might expect, bringing his Moulin Rouge! sensibilities to the novel’s Long Island wealth and city dirt. The star here is style—hyper-exaggerated, practically choreographed—which Luhrmann treats as far more important than substance. An orchestra of silk curtains billow around Daisy Buchanan (a whispery, glowing Carey Mulligan); a shimmering, biblically huge party overwhelms the flappers and the dapper at Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) manse; Dust Bowl-style grit covers the Wilsons (Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher); and our reaction is the same throughout: Beautiful, artificial look. Fumbling, inconsistent feel.
For all the confidently overdesigned aesthetics, the narrative and editing rhythms of The Great Gatsby are terribly unsure. Luhrmann seems to believe his visual prowess will carry the film, letting sequences run too long without focus, carelessly leaving us to skitter around a parlor or party like an uninvited guest with no one to talk to.
A drug-fueled midday shindig at a downtown apartment has too much in common with a giant bash at Gatsby’s. There’s imbibing, ass-grabbing, random jumping around… and very little story movement. (Luhrmann loves this stuff.) If only John Leguizamo had surprisingly popped out of Gatsby’s pool to kick off a Busby Berkeley-style number, then we’d have something.
And, hey, when you’ve created such luscious, CGI-inspired landscapes, why dolly a camera when you can swoop it in from a half-mile away at record speeds? Sometimes, even the purposefully overdone can feel too overdone.
Amid the rollercoaster camera moves and look-at-me lavishness, Luhrmann’s strong cast is definitely game for his approach, most players sliding comfortably into the cartoonish application. As usual, DiCaprio really gets it, playing Gatsby as a Charles Foster Kane-like enigma, a man beyond myth. DiCaprio lays on the “ol’ sport” diction and false charm like the world’s most practiced teller of tall tales. The unfortunate flipside comes when it’s time for us to sympathize with Gatsby as he pines away for Daisy; we’ve been kept a cynical arm’s length from the character, and Luhrmann’s artificiality—and script—don’t have the sincerity for us to feel for the star-crossed lovers. Luhrmann wants lush, operatic emotion, but we’re still left looking around the room.
Equally up to the comic-book acting is Joel Edgerton as the sturdy Tom Buchanan, proving he’s about as dependable as any actor today. Edgerton plays the alpha male like an All-American version of Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston, pushing his way around with a puffed-out chest and knuckle-cracking masculinity. An early scene with Tobey Maguire (as narrator Nick Caraway) makes Maguire look like a tiptoeing praying mantis in comparison to his co-star.
Speaking of Maguire, he stands apart as the only weak link in the cast, the only player not attacking the dialogue with the showy breathlessness that Luhrmann’s presentation demands. No matter though, the characters play second fiddle to their surroundings, plotted out in carefully architected 3D depth, lightly glazed with an (East) egg wash.
Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to realize The Great Gatsby on screen is the fifth such effort over more than 80 years. None has been particularly well-received. If Luhrmann is to contribute anything to this legend, perhaps it’s that his version, tasting like ritzy champagne gone flat, continues to confirm that Fitzgerald’s tale should be left alone.