Late into Baz Luhrmann’s film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Tobey Maguire utters the line, “I’m tired of all of you people.” I knew how he felt and thought the same thing early on. There’s a lot of talent and opulence on display here but, while the story is capably re-told, it amounts to a thoroughly artificial, tiresome and hollow movie.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the title character, a mysterious millionaire who attracts the attention and friendship of Nick Carraway (Maguire). Gatsby uses Carraway as his wingman to reconnect with Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the love of his life. Problem is, Daisy is married to a lout (Joel Edgerton) and not able to give herself completely to someone she loved five years earlier but whom may not be as he seems.
Fitzgerald’s novel is frequently cited as one of the greatest in all of literature. I prefer his final, unfinished work, The Last Tycoon, but the prose in Gatsby is beautifully eloquent. This doesn’t make it easily adaptable, as the enigmatic, interior nature of Gatsby, as well as the intellectual quality of the story, make it a better read than a movie. Luhrmann, the flamboyant and occasionally brilliant Australian director of Moulin Rouge! and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, tries to liven things up with oodles of style but his efforts mostly come up short.
The 3D allows for confetti and the frequent spritz of liquid to fly into the audience’s faces but is otherwise pointless. The anachronistic use of music oddly comes up short, as the tedious party scenes are scored to everything from Gershwin to Kanye West; the music choices are oddly subpar and vanish during the second half. Considering how potent the mix-tape of songs for Moulin Rouge! was and how Romeo + Juliet, still Luhrmann’s best, has one of the definitive ‘90s soundtracks, I wished he had both selected better tracks for this movie and made the music a more consistent, integral part of his presentation.
DiCaprio’s shameless, movie-star introductory scene is one of the silliest in memory, with only Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder entrance more hilariously shameless. What appears at first to be an overly self conscious, vanity role grows into an interesting, layered performance. DiCaprio was better playing a wealthy but mentally imbalanced eccentric in The Aviator. Yet, he gives Gatsby a soul, which isn’t easy, as he’s more of a symbol than a character.
Maguire’s awe-shucks performance is unimpressive, as if he knew going in that DiCaprio was going to blow him off the screen and decided to dial it down. Mulligan is crucially miscast–she resembles ‘30s movie star Lillian Gish but has no chemistry with DiCaprio. Luhrmann’s past films had compelling love stories at their center but not this one.
The cinematography, sets and costumes are ravishing to the eye but not one scene feels spontaneous or real. Every scene, every moment is overdone and dressed up with some visual gimmick or overreaching performance. I’ve enjoyed Luhrmann’s past triumphs, including his under-appreciated Gone With the Wind in the Outback, Australia. With The Great Gatsby, his vision feels lopsided, as if he needed to either dial it down or add yet another layer of visual bombast. The film’s quiet, lumbering last half is a first for a Luhrmann movie: it’s really dull.
There is a use, even a need, for this story to be introduced to younger audiences. Pop culture has more than a few Gatsby’s, celebrities that are famous for being famous, lonely despite being surrounded by people and wealthy but appear dreadfully unhappy. The tragedy of Gatsby was his inability to truly connect with people. The tragedy of Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that it’s not a good movie.
The Great Gatsby
Rated PG-13 / 143 Min.