Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a movie that promises crazy excess but in the end only hints at it.
It isn’t afraid to go all out with its costuming but is constantly worried that audiences won’t understand basic plot points unless a voice-over literally describes exactly what we’re seeing on the screen.
The Great Gatsby is a film where the moment someone takes a pill at a party the soundtrack plays ‘Love Is The Drug’. It tries to distract you from thinking too deeply by waving around shiny things. Basically, it’s the movie Gatsby would make to try and win over Daisy. If you don’t like being compared to a ditsy blonde who marries for money and neglects her daughter, maybe this isn’t the movie for you.
Lurhman sticks close to the basics of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel without ever really suggesting any understanding of, let alone insight to what’s going on.
There’s a new framing sequence; narrator Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) is now drying out in a sanatorium under the guidance of Jack Thompson, who suggests he write down what drove him to drink so that Baz Luhrmann can turn it into a movie 80 years later. It adds nothing to the story but does provide the opportunity to show Nick occasionally typing away while words float up on the screen. This is not a good thing. Throwing up chunks of text to float around in 3D might have been meant as a sign of faith – “Look how faithful we’re being to the book, it’s right there on the screen!”, but it feels like laziness.
As if a faithful adaptation could merely involve running the original text over images of whatever the director felt like. Adapting a novel means turning the novel into a living breathing movie, not creating a PowerPoint presentation.
Meanwhile, back in the past, the story unfolds: it’s the early 1920s and Nick comes to New York to make his money selling bonds. There he catches up with his airy cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her thuggish sports star millionaire husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), before realising his shabby shack is situated next to the largest party house in the state: the four storey mansion of one Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DeCaprio).
Gatsby is the biggest mystery in town. First we get a long string of almost horror-movie style hints as to who Gatsby is (he’s shadowy! He wears a pinkie ring! He stands on a dock!). Then Nick gets invited to one of his parties, where he hears a series of gossipy revelations – supposedly Gatsby’s related to The Kaiser. And then with a crazy camera swoop and string of exploding fireworks DiCaprio spins around dramatically to announce “I’m Gatsby!” while the soundtrack all but goes ‘Duh Duh Daaaah’. It’s stupid and awesome and the movie needs a dozen more moments like it.
It turns out Gatsby is buddying up to Nick because he wants a re-introduction to Daisy, the gal he was in love with five years ago, back when he was an army officer being shipped off to the war. Nick says fine, and invites Daisy over for afternoon tea so Gatsby can drop by. It’s a scene that gives us our first real glimpse of a human emotion under the facade, as Gatsby paces like a nervous teen and grabs at anything to settle his nerves. Yet Luhrmann plays it as broad farce, which completely undercuts the emotion of the scene. As it’s the basis of the romance that the rest of the film is built around, this is a problem.
This movie is full of equally ham-fisted moments. The classic scene where Gatsby throws around his masses of shirts – here his bedroom is a two-storey barn lined with them – only to have Daisy cry and say “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts” now has Nick say beforehand in his voice-over “Five long years struggled on Daisy’s lips, but all she could manage was…” Get it?
She says the shirts are beautiful because she can’t tell him how she really feels, which is that she missed him! Sure, in the book (where Nick merely observes what’s happening) it’s a much more complex and hard to read moment, but presumably Luhrmann feels that if you’re thinking about what the characters are feeling you’re probably not paying attention to the set design. Look, Gatsby has his logo on everything! Wasn’t he meant to be a mysterious enigma half an hour ago?
Then there’s the spinning newspaper headlines that add nothing (for example: Where’s The Money From, Gatsby?), Tom’s giant 3D cigar. Not forgetting the hilariously over-the-top moment where someone gets hit by a car and goes flying up in slow motion in front of the billboard featuring the eyes of optometrist T.J Eckleberg – whose eyes are also The Eyes Of God, but that’s from the book so it’s okay.
These are the fun bits of the movie; much of the rest of the time it just plods along, all but looking around wondering where the next party is.
Luckily for the movie, DiCaprio is almost certainly the best cinematic Gatsby to date, and not just because he makes Gatsby’s constant refrain of “old sport” seem like something an actual human being might say. He anchors the movie’s mix of the half-hearted and the delirious in a character that plausibly fits both worlds, a man convincingly driven entirely by a vision of the past. The other performances are uneven at best; Edgerton has a sweaty energy, but he’s playing the only character that gets to do anything. Mulligan is largely just a simpering object of desire and Maguire is stuck playing a hopeless geek for the first third of the movie and never really recovers.
The Great Gatsby is a heart-breaking tale of money, success and lust. It’s a real shame that Luhrmann has gone too big with his movie. The opulence far outweighs the content and ultimately overshadows it. The 3D effects in this movie don’t really add anything to it. It’s just yet another distraction to add to the list.
By Ruth Walker