Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has quite a bit going for it: an epic soundtrack; eye-popping art direction; a titanic-sized (or Titanic-sized) budget, courtesy of co-producer Jay-Z; a number of radiant performances; and source material from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel. It also kinda sucks.
“Is there a book that captures summer in New York more accurately, more viscerally than The Great Gatsby?” That’s a question the Australian writer/director Luhrmann posed in a recent interview with Reuters. It’s also a telling statement of purpose for the film itself, and a depressing barometer for how he approached one of the greatest stories in the history of literature.
As a filmmaker, Luhrmann isn’t exactly known for his subtle character observations or philosophical ruminations. He’s the Jerry Bruckheimer of romance, the Michael Bay of period drama, filling the screen with the absolute maximum number of whooshes and effects and zooms and spotlights and flashy anachronisms. On one hand, with his bloated resume (the steroidal Shakespeare adaptation Romeo + Juliet, the turn-of-the-century musical-jukebox romance Moulin Rouge!), he seems like a perfect candidate for adapting Gatsby. After all, this is a film filled with secret affairs and orgiastic parties, set in the roaring, Jazz Age ’20s. But Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce focus so much on Gatsby’s glitzy grandeur that they lose grip of the story’s intricate dynamics.
We open in a sanitarium, where the troubled Nick Carraway (the eternally pubescent Tobey Maguire) is writing, under doctor’s orders, the unforgettable saga of Jay Gatsby and his mysterious web of tragic deceit. The basic plot remains unchanged: Carraway, living modestly in the cozy bay community of Long Island, reignites a friendship with his cousin Daisy (a hollow-eyed Carey Mulligan) and her wealthy, unfaithful, racist husband, Tom Buchanan (a superb Joel Edgerton). Carraway, a neighbor to the enigmatic billionaire Gatsby, finds himself personally invited to one of the latter’s star-studded carnival parties, and eventually strikes up a friendship with the man himself.
The film’s cartoonish first half is a colossal disaster, a neon-nightmare coma filmed in 3-D. Particularly awful are the party sequences, which are crammed with every visual trick in Luhrmann’s oh-my-gaudy playbook: ridiculous panoramic zooms, hammy dancing, and kaleidoscopic colors. As a stand-alone document, the soundtrack is an ornate blockbuster, but jazz hands and Jay-Z aren’t particularly logical mates. During a decadent party scene at a city apartment, the rapper’s “Who Gon Stop Me” blasts over the din, totally tipping the scales from respectably crazy to just plain stupid.
Luhrmann also brings out the worst in his cast, which struggles to inject some potency. As Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio is the perfect blend of boyish romantic and brooding phantom, but Luhrmann’s heavy hand mars some of the actor’s more intimate moments; our first glimpse of the character is a kooky anti-climax, set to a corny close-up and soundtracked by an even cornier orchestral fanfare. When Gatsby stares out longingly across the bay to Daisy’s dock and its ever-beaming green light, Luhrmann frames the scene like a Shakespearean play.
There are glimpses of greatness. Edgerton is superb, channeling the stern, silent turmoil in the cuckolded Buchanan. Maguire is the film’s aching heartbeat, saying more with one conflicted smile and dejected frown than any of Luhrmann’s explosive visuals. As a testament to Fitzgerald’s writing, not even Luhrmann can ruin the majesty of the interweaving plot. Even though it’s overacted, overproduced, and shot with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball’s swing, the film’s murderous climax still has impact.
Ultimately, the problem isn’t that Luhrmann tries too hard. His visuals, for all their occasional clumsiness, do have their summer movie–spectacle charms; at the cost of intellectual stimulation, this film does have a campy transcendence. The problem is that Luhrmann doesn’t know how to apply his trademark style at the right times; Gatsby is all spectacle, all the time, and it’s draining.
“Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” So sings indie crooner Lana Del Rey during the film’s string-bathed theme, reprised a thousand times to highlight the story’s themes of vanity and betrayal. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s mesmerizing novel has already transcended its age. Even if Luhrmann’s Gatsby was filmed in 3-D, it still feels one dimensional.