Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is an opulent, candy-colored mess – a glorious misfire worthy of entry in the Go Big Or Go Home record books. Of course, the first two words of that previous sentence make the rest redundant, as Baz Luhrmann is fast on its way to become a cinematic term: To Baz Lurhmann a movie is to inflate it, to stuff it to bursting with fireworks and streamers and confetti and, somewhere in there, a slim thread of plot. No one should be allowed to watch a Luhrmann movie and pretend surprise at what they’ve seen. It’s not a question of whether his films are piñatas, but more of whether you want to pick up the stick and take a swing.
Luhrmann’s adaptation is effectively faithful to the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, a Roaring-’20s Long Island soap opera of parties, sex, booze, class, love and loss. (Especially loss.) Working-rich Wall Streeter Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is swept up in the old- and new-money rivalries at East Egg and West Egg, the tony bayside neighborhoods of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and especially his new pal Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio), an enigmatic party animal with a mansion full of secrets.
Just as Gatsby pines after Daisy – he’s rearranged his entire life to put himself back on her radar screen – I wonder if Luhrmann didn’t take on The Great Gatsby solely so he could shoot those amazing parties, painted as the fabulous but vacant epitome of Jazz Age glamour. In Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet (and to a lesser extent his first film, Strictly Ballroom) the director used scenes of decadent high living to showcase the ironies of his characters’ subcutaneous pain; that tactic works like a charm in Gatsby, perhaps the ultimate literary example of laugh-outside-cry-inside storytelling. Trouble is, we get the message much too soon in the film – perhaps even in the first scene, in which Nick is being treated in the future for “morbid alcoholism” in a sanitarium. There’s little to no dramatic arc here; you don’t need to have read the book to know where these characters are going from the moment they set foot on screen. Like a negligent parent, the director is too preoccupied with chasing those party scenes to see to his overall narrative, or to give his hungry actors anything to chew on.
That leaves it to the performers themselves to define their contributions to the film, and results in an uneven state of affairs. The world has waited patiently for Di Caprio to find a role he was born to play, and he’s found it in Jay Gatsby, whose preening showboat persona poorly masks a scared and desperate boy who thinks he’s found his place in the world – with Daisy – and will do anything to get back to it. Di Caprio is wonderful to watch here, as his mercurial demeanor switches per the script’s demands from Party Mode to Sad Mode, and back, and forth. Watching him in Shutter Island I recall commenting that Di Caprio looked like he was wearing his dad’s clothes, but Gatsby is tailor-made for his rather specific talents.
Nick is more of a blank slate, but Maguire fills it with love for Gatsby; in fact, the two actors, friends since childhood in real life, have the best chemistry in the film. Edgerton is given little to do but be menacing, but the real waste of space here is Carey Mulligan, who fails utterly to connect as Daisy, the role that in a perfect Gatsby would be the catalyst for all that transpires. Mulligan has proven herself a fine actress in films including Shame and An Education, but here she’s an empty dress – adrift on the bay between West Egg and East Egg, waiting for someone to save her. Maybe Luhrmann could have thrown her a life preserver, if he wasn’t so busy making sure the champagne corks popped at just the right angles.
I don’t understand why it’s proven so hard to adapt The Great Gatsby, a slim book that tells a brisk story and yet that seemingly can’t be filmed in less than two-plus hours. There’s a tale for the ages in there, beneath the bunting and the bands, but we’re still waiting for that tale to be given the cinematic life it deserves. Lurhmann’s production values are top-notch, but there’s something chillingly ironic about his inability to connect with his characters while nailing every detail of their surface lives. As Nick eventually discovers over the course of the story, pomp without circumstance is a pretty tragic way to live.
The Great Gatsby. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan. Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Rated PG-13 (guidance strongly suggested for children under 13), for violence, drugs and sexuality. Rating: 5 out of 10