There are two seemingly contradictory, yet self-evident truths that director and high energy auteur Baz Luhrmann proves with his opulent and flashy mounting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age parable The Great Gastby:
1. When a script is this faithful overall to the source material, style and grandeur can be the only things that save it from being overly rigid and boring like a High School reading assignment.
2. Fitzgerald’s novel of the disaffected rich in and around New York City in the early 1920s still remains just beyond the grasp of any filmmaker.
While Luhrmann has crafted probably the sturdiest and assuredly prettiest mounting of the story to date, there’s still something missing. Gatsby as a novel has a tone that the big screen simply can’t hope to match, and despite the best efforts of the film, something remains just ever so slightly out of reach.
New money West Egg resident Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recounts his tale of the once great and powerful Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious and eccentric billionaire known for throwing lavish parties and genuinely being the toast of the town despite hardly ever interacting with anyone outside his own home. Gatsby takes a shine to his neighbour not only out of natural ease of conversation, but because he can get him closer to the one woman in life he still pines for after leaving to go to war: Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who now finds herself married to an old money jock and relentless blowhard (Joel Edgerton) whose contempt for Gatsby drips from every pore whenever they’re in the same room together.
When describing Luhrmann’s often hyper-stylized career, Gatsby slots quite nicely between his two best known and most beloved films. He brings the same love of a sacred text that he brought to his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet; not really changing anything major in terms of the story’s plotting or even dialogue. The story takes the notion that Carraway has been writing the story down the entire time almost too literally, cribbing chunks of narration almost word for word and to his detriment at times because it just serves to underline that this is a story that can’t be told without exposing the innermost thoughts of the narrator.
Those same inner thoughts and monologues dovetail nicely into the same territory that Luhrmann covered in Moulin Rouge, but in a far more subdued fashion. This film isn’t as nutty, fast paced, and openly crowd pleasing as that effort, but it still keeps that film’s framing device and oddly keeps almost the exact same theme of social climbing almost perfectly intact. He does get pretty wild at times, especially with shots of brightly colour roadsters zooming around or flappers flapping about ceaselessly at one of Gatsby’s bashes.
Visually, Luhrmann delights in a way that he hasn’t really been able to do before. While his decision to use 3-D to tell the story adds next to nothing to the material or its setting, the film exudes the kind of class that does justice to the story. Even Luhrmann’s more anachronistic touches like the bumping Jay-Z produced soundtrack or giant product placement Moet bottle confetti canons don’t feel that out of place. He also slows down enough here that so the audience can take it all in and breathe the air around the film. It’s hard not to be intoxicated by what’s being done here on a technical level.
Furthermore, Luhrmann also brings to light elements of the story that were previously taken for granted. The racial underpinnings of a bunch of white people being drawn to largely African American music is brought slyly to life; the very soundtrack acting as a modern day extension of that to further showcase the novel’s depiction of how minorities were treated during that particular era. Also, through Daisy and Gatsby, the film offers a genuinely intriguing psychological reading of the two characters and the depression they have suffered as a result of their tragic romance. Their secrets and guilt wears on the both of them more and more, and it’s quite wise of Luhrmann to not tart it up with unnecessary theatrics. It’s quite nicely subdued by his usual standards overall.
The biggest problem – and it’s a very large one – is that overall Luhrmann seems to have missed the core point on Fitzgerald’s novel entirely. Gatsby was always largely a text that sought to expose just how boring and mundane it is to be rich. Large sections of the novel are meant to be read like blasé toss-offs rather than grand drama. He’s a filmmaker who can’t seem to stop going to 11, and although he comes ever so close here, he can’t stop focusing on the showier aspects of the story. Granted, this all could have been fixed had he not treated Fitzgerald’s novel with a staunch kind of reverence for the words that were already on the page, but this is where Luhrmann’s devotion to the text shoots him in the foot. Much like Gatsby’s own life and the novel around it, he creates an inescapable paradox.
Making things better are perfectly cast actors, some of whom are doing what ranks among the best work of their careers, particularly Maguire and Mulligan. Maguire’s Carraway is intended to be the closest thing to an everyman that we can get, and he uses his entire body and his distinct voice to create different layers for the character beyond just that of a stock narrator. It’s near impossible to bring such a cipher to life; a character that’s full of restrained emotion and exposition. Maguire does it nicely and leaves an impression instead of playing the part of a wallflower. He is that kind of a character, but he’s believable and likable.
Mulligan’s Daisy similarly steals the show, by portraying her as a woman who had her strength drained from her long before her long lost love came back into her life. Even at her happiest she seems just a few steps away from being on the verge of tears. She’s constantly confused and unhappy with her current situation; torn between doing the “right” thing and staying with a man she doesn’t love all that much or going back to the person she once loved so passionately, but that she knows nothing about.
As the titular playboy and man of mystery, DiCaprio eases back into Luhrmann’s world with another sort of boyish prince role. It’s one that’s he’s played before, but this is actually a character that harkens back to one of the actor’s best performances as con man Frank Abignale in Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, and it’s a choice that pays off well for the production as a whole. DiCaprio has made a bit of a career out of playing characters that are surface gloss, but keeping closely guarded secrets. His boyish good looks make an audience want to believe that he would never lie to them, and he seemingly delights in subverting those expectations in his best work. He’s an excellent choice for Gatsby.
The supporting cast offers some inspired choices, but not all of them really get a chance to fully shine. Edgerton is okay as the film’s primary villain, but he’s playing a fine line between Fitzgerald’s character and the kind of over-the-top brute that Luhrmann loves having in his films. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki stands out with some impressive work as a golf pro with mutual ties to all involved. Isla Fisher shows up in a minor, but pivotal supporting role as Edgerton’s mistress, and the always underrated Jason Clarke appears as her cuckolded working class husband. The three of them are so great that one wishes they had more scenes in the film than they do, particularly Clarke.
Overall, Gatsby can’t be called anything more than an ambitious and interesting misfire. It’s not particularly the fault of anyone involved since there’s clearly an effort being made all around. Fitzgerald’s book is just patently unfilmable unless the text is changed and moulded to fit on screen. Instead, what happens here is a lot more telling of what’s going on than showing, and to say that about a Baz Luhrmann production is a little bit shocking and disappointing.