Baz Luhrmann (the director) is well known for producing movies with visual splendor aplenty, that happen to be lacking in content or become horribly altered from their original source material. This reputation of Luhrmann’s rests upon the critical reception of a couple of his previous movies: Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). Romeo + Juliet was intended to be a modern ‘updating’ of the classic Shakespeare play that has been adapted so many times already, so I don’t quite get the vitriol aimed at his version. Moulin Rouge! was intended to be a pastiche film about jukebox musicals set in a period of time in France, but still managed to be full of visual explosiveness. Luhrmann has directed his attention to adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic and beloved American novel – The Great Gatsby. Given that Gatsby itself is about the depraved excess of the Roaring Twenties, it seems that Luhrmann would be able to convert the rich source material and combine it with his visual style to produce a great marriage.
Watching this movie completely silent without the benefit of any captions truly opened up a world of wonder and various details. Especially when the movie begins with snow falling, probably solely added for the benefit of 3D. Then we’re introduced to Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Maguire appears to consider that Carraway requires stiff acting with a vapid, vacant, thousand-yard glassy stare that’s pronounced throughout the movie. There’s utterly nothing given to the role, no charisma at all, no chutzpah, nothing that truly infuses Carraway as a character. While it’s true that Gatsby should always be about Gatsby, it just seems that Luhrmann and Maguire decided to keep Carraway as an ineffectual bysider, the perpetual third wheel that doesn’t have the good sense to actually disappear instead of always being lurking about in the background. Carraway becomes the insufferable outsider, especially since Luhrmann marginalized the character in the adaption – not even leaving him with the pitiful romantic prospect of Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). The character of Baker became your standard bar floozy – stringing the nice guy along, while sleeping with the rich guys in order to further progress their social ambition.
With the minor characters (and they are truly minor in this adaption), there are three roles that are truly highlighted in this film: Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom. That’s your standard love triangle, the easiest way to compress the trials and tribulations of an entire novel down to its bare essence – love, betrayal, revenge, and then full circle – redemption. Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy), and Joel Edgerton (Tom) are the focal points of Luhrmann’s adaptation – the film both rises and falls upon their performances. While DiCaprio gave a good performance, I thought Mulligan’s was a bit insipid and wooden, while Edgerton gave the best performance in the entire film that somehow got overlooked. The best scene in the film was the triumphant crescendo of the sound effects (the rumbling that you’d feel from the music and sound effects) as we finally got introduced to DiCaprio as Gatsby, with his elvish smile lit up by fireworks exploding behind him. A photograph of the apex of that scene alone would serve awfully well as a synopsis for this film as a whole:
I can’t think of a finer illustration of this iconic moment in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel than the above still. It compresses everything about the novel into this single package. Handsome, devilish DiCaprio wearing fine clothes, offering alcohol to Carraway as the party behind him culminates into a frenzied apex of streamers, fireworks, revelers, confetti, and everything else that symbolizes the excess of the Roaring Twenties for the monied elite. It’s the distilled essence of the entire book and film into a single object. Gaze upon it and ponder how Gatsby let his longing for Daisy convert him into a possessed man, thinking about what might have been, and doing everything within his powers to find Daisy and win her back. The Great Gatsby is considered the great American novel for a variety of reasons, but what it really boils down to is this: Gatsby did everything within his life in the pursuit of his happiness. The problem is that what made him happy was Daisy. And isn’t that the American Dream? Coming from nothing, pursuing happiness, and using all the resources you have available to you?
Then at the other end of the spectrum, we have Tom, the scion of an old-monied family. He’s married to Daisy but keeps a secret mistress in the Valley of Ashes. It seems that Tom is abusing his power, money, and privilege to the fullest that he possibly could. And this is brilliantly reflected in the performance given by Joel Edgerton. He’s able to convey meaning and emotion with his sparkling blue eyes, which in most scenes is contrasted by Maguire’s vacant and glassed-over eyes. Fire, desire, and passion can be seen within Edgerton’s eyes, sparkling for the most part within scenes containing his mistress and scenes involving Daisy’s intentions regarding their marriage. Daisy (Carey Mulligan) gives an aloof and detached performance, which would work in a modern Gatsby tale, but doesn’t quite work so well in this movie. Trying to depict the internal struggle that goes on within Daisy’s character with aplomb, Mulligan just comes off as petulant and aloof. Eminently unlikable, it’s hard to believe that Daisy is who Gatsby desires above all. The non-existent chemistry between DiCaprio and Mulligan is exhibited throughout the movie, with the viewer hoping that either Gatsby or Daisy dies a fiery death (which wouldn’t be so out of the realm for a Luhrmann movie, all the better for 3D, given the liberties he’s already taken within the movie, such as vastly expanding the Valley of Ashes in the never-ending pursuit of cinematic license.
While all in all, I found Gatsby entertaining, especially in 3D – purists of either the original novel or the cinema would be offended by Luhrmann’s adaptation, but there’s an easy solution. Come in with different expectations, read the book instead, or watch one of the several other adaptations that have already been filmed throughout the years. Expect a visual smorgasbord of special effects and over-the-top sets (especially for the party scenes), but don’t expect serious acting or in-depth meaning. There are sparks of brilliance seeded throughout the movie, but they’re few and spread out thoroughly, like manna in the desert – just enough to sustain the viewer to soldier on to the end. It’s not an absolute must-watch, but not a waste of time either.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Studio: Warner Brothers