Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY is a frustrating movie. It’s frustrating because it gets quite a bit right, but the movie strays in fairly essential ways. Some of those ways may not be Luhrmann’s fault, but frankly, there are some that are. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel at its core is an indictment of 1920s excess, but it’s difficult for any filmmaker when showing that excess not to get a little, well, excessive.
And there aren’t many filmmakers who can do excessive like Baz Luhrmann, which is why on paper it seemed like a good idea for Luhrmann to take on the famous novel. But as any high school English teacher can attest, there are subtle messages in the novel that don’t necessarily translate well onto the screen, which is why many film adaptations of the book fall short. Luhrmann gets more of those subtleties than you would expect, but you can’t blame the man for going overboard on 3D visuals and splendid over-the-top parties. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, and Luhrmann certainly knows how to do that.
The movie has unnecessary bookends, as Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) resides in an institution, telling his story to his therapist, who advises him to write about it. Carraway is haunted by his best friend Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his efforts to woo Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) back into his arms and away from boorish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Tom’s worked hard to get to be the man he is, and his disdain for Gatsby and his lavish parties don’t hide the fact that Tom’s a bit of a heel himself. Daisy must choose between the two, and all the while Carraway watches events unfold. All of them are living on borrowed time – this is the 1920s, and the Great Depression, unbeknownst to all of them, is coming fast.
Every generation appears to have a solipsistic outlook to those on the outside, and the representation of these characters is no different. These are vapid, self-absorbed people and unaware of how they may appear to people less fortunate. Their parties have all the hedonism of ancient Rome, and Luhrmann does a terrific job of documenting that excess, setting these parties to modern music and 3D splendor.
As in MOULIN ROUGE, this surprisingly works and in its manner gets that message across, but it’s hard to tell if this is an indictment of the generation of the film, or the current generation watching it, or if Luhrmann Is simply enjoying all the excess without any subtext. It’s that confusion that is particularly difficult to get right in GATSBY, and for people unfamiliar with the novel, these underlying messages may do a complete fly-by.
But even though the music is anachronistic, it works. Jay Z is one of the producers of the movie, and you can see how the material would appeal to him. Obviously Luhrmann is trying to tap into the universality of the messages of the book. Sometimes he does, and then sometimes it feels like he's just showing off.
Unfortunately, the movie’s biggest failures lie in the casting, especially of the main characters. With the exception of one, all feel very miscast. DiCaprio plays Gatsby as an optimistic young man who insists that he will have his way in the end, but I couldn’t help but think that he’s simply too old for the part. There’s a youthful exuberance to Gatsby that, try as he might, DiCaprio simply can’t pull off anymore. Carey Mulligan has turned Daisy into a less sympathetic character (although it can be argued that you’re not supposed to sympathize with her) and while Mulligan is a beautiful woman, the unpleasant aspects of her character make it hard to see why Gatsby would be so obsessed with her.
All the while, Tobey Maguire’s Carraway watches and takes note, and Maguire’s played roles like this many times over. I can see why he was cast, and Maguire throws in a bit of subtlety here and there as to Nick’s motivations, but I couldn’t help but think that he could play this part in his sleep. However, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan is revelatory, and he digs into the conflicting nature of Tom like it’s a steak. He’s easily the best performance of the movie, and I could see him getting recognition for his work here down the road. When he’s in the room, the other actors can barely keep up, which is surprising considering who he’s working with here.
But there are many moments in GATSBY that made me think that Luhrmann knows what kind of movie he’s making here. In the quieter moments between the splendors, there seems to be a pulse to the movie that doesn’t feel artificial. The use of 3D is well done and the party scenes have all the magnificence of Dionysian overindulgence. The music provides a real backbeat to the movie that drives the movie far better than I expected, considering that it’s all modern.
There’s a lot to like in THE GREAT GATSBY. Again, this may lie in the difficulty of the material – subtext is hard to get right, especially when dealing with Fitzgerald’s short but dense novel, and especially when you’re making a bombastic summer tentpole movie. It may be that what you bring to the movie will inform the movie far better. Or it may just be all gloss and glamour and nothing more. What THE GREAT GATSBY gets right, it gets perfectly. What it gets wrong, it misses just enough to be a little bit infuriating.