I have genuinely mixed emotions about director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann's take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel THE GREAT GATSBY. On the one hand, the lush look and resplendent pageantry on display is breathtaking to the point of being difficult to believe a film of this scale and indulgence can still be made; it's the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA of shallow people. On the other hand, so much of the film looks fake, and I'm pretty sure it's not on purpose most of the time. Shot in Sidney but set largely in and around Long Island, the shots of New York City and the coastline mansions where the characters all live look like they are three-dimensional version of period postcard paintings rather than the real thing. At its worse, the film resembles a pop-up-book rendering of the Jazz Age devoid of any flesh-and-blood characters for us to really care about.
When Luhrmann last worked with Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays the titular Jay Gatsby) on their version of Shakespeare's ROMEO + JULIET, the director actually allowed the camera to pause for while to let us live and love and become enraged with the characters. But with GATSBY, Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan have ants in their collective pants, and keep the camera swinging and swooping across epic party sequences, across water and land, car chases on paved and dirt roads, and even within small rooms to convey a sense of mayhem, where no one has the time or inclination to look to closely at what Gatsby is really all about (assuming people even know what he looks like).
As in the book, the story is the remembrance of Gatsby's neighbor, the writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who has moved into a small house that is practically in the shadow of Gatsby's mansion. Nick has come to New York to work and is reunited with his beloved cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is clearly miserable (and rich) being married to the brutish Tom (Joel Edgerton), the most woefully underwritten character in the film. Tom is the standard-issue philandering husband, who still finds time to get jealous when a man looks sideways at his wife. Presently, Tom is philandering with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), who lives in a rundown little town between New York and Long Island, where all the workers live. The ditzy Myrtle is also married, to gas station attendant George (the criminally underused Jason Clarke), who doesn't so much talk as grunt his lines.
Daisy is trying to push Nick together with her tennis pro friend Jordan Baker (the mesmerizing Elizabeth Debicki), and I was never quite sure if Luhrmann was trying to imply that Jordan only played "women's singles" or if she went for "mixed doubles." (My metaphors suck, I know.) But when Gatsby becomes friends with Nick and discovers that Daisy is his cousin, he immediately befriends the young writer with clear ulterior motives having to do with her. There are some plot elements and characters added to this film version of THE GREAT GATSBY that are clever and some that are a needless distractions, but whatever you feel about them, they don't take away from the fact that this story isn't all that intriguing as a film, unless you look at it purely as a critique of the filthy rich, which many have and will.
The novel is a series of observances with a loose story connecting them. For some reason, when I read the book in high school, the image of Gatsby's library always stuck with me. Most of his books still had the unbroken seals on them, meaning they had never been cracked open and were on the shelves merely for show. The idea that anyone would own a book to impress someone had never occurred to the 15-year-old me, but the older I get, the more it makes sense to me and I see examples of such image-conscious behavior everywhere. But for the most part, such analysis of the culture of the filthy rich is ignored. Sure, some characters are racist, sexist and unfriendly to the underclasses, but those are obvious, broad strokes. In a film that is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Luhrmann had as much of a chance to look at things under the microscope as he did to go big.
With the exception of Edgerton (an actor I genuinely like but am suspicious of since he made that horrible TIMOTHY GREEN movie), most of the performances in GATSBY are pretty great. DiCaprio and Mulligan generate a certain amount of heat, as their past catches up with them. Maguire has always been good and playing the quiet observer inspired to action, although I have to admit, the best chemistry in the film belongs to DiCaprio and Maguire, who form a strange conspiratorial brotherhood bond between them.
Of course, the clothes are lovely, the sets are lavish, and the music (both the Jay-Z curated soundtrack and the Craig Armstrong score) and indulgent but catchy. It's Baz Luhrmann; he doesn't leave these facets unattended. But by choosing a plotline that he has told in nearly all of his films—that of a couple society (and/or spouses) tries to keep apart still coming together only to have tragedy intervene—as the template for THE GREAT GATSBY, Luhrmann's greatest crime is being predictable, and there may be no bigger crime when going to the movies than to pay high prices for a film with an ending you see coming an hour before the end credits.
Sure the 3-D looks extraordinary; again, Luhrmann wouldn't waste such an opportunity and not take full advantage. But no amount of trickery and visual flair can hide the fact that this large vessel is empty and mostly soulless. I've said this before about Luhrmann, he's one of our last remaining visionaries, but he has to care as much or more about plot and characters than he does about making us go "ooh" and "ahh." There's a party scene in THE GREAT GATSBY that ends with the most elaborate fireworks display the imaginary world has ever seen. But when its over, there's just smoke. OK, that metaphor is a little better than the first; you get the idea.