Moments of near-brilliance that capture the true essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic are lost in a sea of unrelenting opulence and unrestrained overindulgence in director Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which is simultaneously beautiful and ugly, exciting and sleepy, heartfelt and emotionally distant. It’s a maddening, frustrating mess.
Of course, we expected no less from Aussie director Luhrmann, who previously made the endlessly exuberant Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and Australia. When it works, Gatsby represents some of – or rather, becomes – the director’s finest work: the kinetic, hyper-stylized conveyance of ideas and emotions – vapid as the style may be – is a perfect match for the thematic undercurrent of the source material.
The novel, after all, was years ahead of its time and seems more relevant to each passing generation: its story of the excesses of the upper class on Long Island and the illusion of extravagance is timeless. Fitzgerald died thinking the book had failed, but it has become one of the 20th century’s most enduring classics, and continues to sell half a million copies a year. In this age of Paris Hilton and the perversion of the American Dream, it’s more pertinent than ever.
This Gatsby – while still set in the Jazz Age – makes that connection to the modern era crystal clear, least of all with its modern pop soundtrack. But at its worst, it’s a return to the unrestrained, unchecked territory of Australia: here is a storyteller given free rein to tell his story in imaginative and inventive fashion, which he takes full advantage of. But in all the razzle-dazzle he loses track of something that should have been the focus: telling the story.
A perfectly-cast Leonardo DiCaprio (more appropriate for this role than Robert Redford in the 1974 version) stars as Gatsby, who somehow manages to become a supporting character in his own movie. This film is all about Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the first-person narrator who told Gatsby’s story in the novel. That’s all fine in literary terms, but with Carraway in almost every frame of the movie, and Maguire’s wall-to-wall narration ringing in our ears throughout, the film can’t help but become about the character.
Gatsby focuses on Carraway’s introduction to wealth and extravagance and 1920s decadence through Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and then Gatsby; later, the movie seems to become about the decadence itself. Not that Maguire’s Carraway isn’t interesting, but there’s just so much more to work with in Gatsby, and particularly DiCaprio’s portrayal. Alas, the titular character’s story takes a backseat to all the flash and fury and look-at-me filmmaking.
But two scenes, in particular, work so well that they make me want to forgive the rest of the movie. The first comes early, during Nick’s introduction to booze and Tom’s infidelity: a party scene (featuring a stunningly beautiful Adelaide Clemens) beginning with a small dog eating off an ornate chair and ending with Carraway on the balcony, looking out over Manhattan and the writhing members of the lower class on the street, hits all the right notes. This is one of the very few instances in the film where the narration – taken straight from Fitzgerald – really adds to the atmosphere.
The second scene is the most important in the story: the climactic encounter between Gatsby, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and Tom in the sweltering Plaza Hotel suite. This sequence – the culmination of Gatsby’s storyline and the turning point in the film – is so well directed that we can palpably feel not only the heat of the room but the intensity of these three characters as emotions build up to a boiling point and erupt.
And then, right when the film hits its highest point – bam! Maguire’s narration hits us over the head, describing exactly what we are seeing on screen.
Mulligan, by the way, along with newcomer Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan Baker, steals the movie. In fact, all the female characters here, immaculately decked out in silent-era flapper garb, demand your attention whenever onscreen. Costumes and sets, needless to say, are phenomenal.
But what’s with the cut-rate CGI? Certain sequences here are completely animated using, ahem, less-than state-of-the-art technology; cartoon versions of the characters appear on screen, passed off as the actors, obscured by long shots or in shadows. It’s jarring stuff, and really takes you out of the film.
The soundtrack – featuring original music by Jay Z, Beyoncé and André 3000, Jack White, will.i.am and others – is terrific, and serves as the film’s appropriately anachronistic tie to modern pop culture. Lana del Rey’s Young and Beautiful (which the film uses as a recurring motif) and Gotye’s Hearts a Mess are standout tracks.
Gatsby has been filmed before, in little-seen 1926 and 1949 versions and in a 1974 movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The ’74 film is largely considered a failure, but it at least managed to tell Fitzgerald’s story; it remains the definitive screen version of the novel, which has yet to see an adaptation that really does it justice.
Despite the mixed review, I still urge you to check The Great Gatsby out. I cannot say you will be entertained, I cannot say you will be stimulated, but you won’t leave without a reaction. I don’t know exactly what to make of it, but I know that it’s…something.
Note: The Great Gatsby is screening in both 3D and 2D versions in Prague cinemas. Above review refers to the 2D version of the film.