Baz Luhrmann sure knows how to bring the bombast to his take on The Great Gatsby, but in the end he’s just the latest filmmaker to fail in his attempt to bring the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald to life. Luhrmann, along with co-writer Craig Pearce, relishes in trying to both bring the period setting to the screen in glorious 3D and giving it a vibrant modern feel. Visually, they’re certainly successful, and much of what you see and hear is suitably garish and loud, but the screenplay just can’t deliver. The plot of the novel is there, but it doesn’t express nearly the same thing. Luhrmann isn’t at all interested in the decline of this particular American period of excess and often seems to be celebrating it instead. Luckily for him, he’s got a real good performance from Leonardo DiCaprio in his back pocket. I’m not as indifferent to this latest adaptation as some will be, but a Best Picture contender, this is not. It’s far too artificial and without an emotional center to be anything more.
I have to imagine that most of you know the basic plot by now, but if not, here’s a primer for the film, as told to us by our entrance into the story Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Nick arrives in New York City during the spring/summer of 1922 and is the lone non-wealthy person in a seemingly endless sea of money in New York. His cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is married to one of the richest members of the old money society out there in Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and his neighbor Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio) is a pseudo recluse who throws the parties of legend. When Nick receives an invitation and attends, he winds up befriending Gatsby and becoming a part of his world. Beneath the glitz, it’s clear Gatsby has only one interest…and that’s Daisy, who he knew years ago. As many try to figure out who Gatsby is and how he acquired his wealth, Nick simply observes as Daisy and Gatsby come together and work towards trying to have a life together. Standing in their way of course is Tom, and he’s not eager to let Daisy go.
My issues with the film do not extend to the acting, which is decent to good all around, with a great central performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. I feel confident in saying that DiCaprio gives us the best cinematic interpretation of Jay Gatsby to date. Despite his surroundings sometimes being too ridiculous to take the scene seriously, DiCaprio gives the enigmatic character the only real emotion of the film that you can believe in. He’s a cool cat, but you always see what’s right there below the surface. I actually think it’s one of his better performances of late. DiCaprio is easily the best thing about the film, but Carey Mulligan is a close second. She really does feel like Daisy, but is often shortchanged by the writing. Mulligan does her best to overcome that. I have issue with how one note Joel Edgerton’s character seems on the page, but he’s talented enough to add a surprising layer to the role. As for Tobey Maguire, he mostly just observes everything around him. Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher are wasted as George and Myrtle Wilson, while Elizabeth Debicki plays Jordan Baker, who’s pretty much just a throw in here.
I’m not convinced that Baz Luhrmann actually wanted to make The Great Gatsby. It really feels like he wanted to make a lavish period piece fueled with some modern music and the book just was there as a studio requirement. Yes, the film does look good in 3D, and yes elements of this story benefit from Luhrmann’s vision, but his directorial interests don’t match. As written by him and Craig Pearce, it turns out simply to be a bloated, boring, needlessly exaggerated, and ultimately soulless. Luhrmann and Pearce really don’t make any of the characters fully likable, they shortchange many despite a long running time, and repeatedly hit home on overly simplified points. Once again for the filmmaker, it’s all style and no substance. What little heart remains comes from what survived of the book’s true themes, but it’s really hit or miss there still. Things are pretty decent for the first half, but the movie lost me more and more during the second half, though I’ll concede that it redeemed itself somewhat during the final minutes.
In terms of the flick’s remaining Oscar hopes, I’d say it’s probably in line for tech nods and nothing else. Leonardo DiCaprio is a long shot Best Actor contender with The Wolf of Wall Street a likely safer bet, and Carey Mulligan will likely get lost in the shuffle. The cinematography has its moments, and could be this year’s 3D nominee, but the production design is really where things shine. I could see that being its chance at a win even.
Overall, The Great Gatsby is anything but folks. Individual moments work and taken just as a piece of summer popcorn entertainment it offers something different, but it fails as an adaptation of the novel and isn’t a real Oscar player at all. I always suspected that this one would come up short to some degree, but still…consider me disappointed.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!