The Great Gatsby. A beautiful, empty pop-up book of a movie.

the-great-gatsbyThe biggest problem with Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Don’t get me wrong, I love the book. But it’s a pretty spare book, and that’s because a whole lot doesn’t actually happen. What makes the book great isn’t its insight into human behavior (most of the characters are two dimensional types) or it’s scintillating action; it’s the sparse and elegant language that Fitzgerald uses to tell the story.

If there are two words that would never be used to describe Baz Luhrmann’s style, they are sparse and elegant. He is out to overwhelm you, to stuff you with enough visual and audio stimuli to crash the hard drive in your head. And now he has 3D to play with?! Lurhmann uses all of these tools to create a fever dream vision of the Jazz Age, and during the party scenes, it works! Luhrmann gives good party. There aren’t many other filmmakers working today (with the exception of maybe Danny Boyle) who can present sheer unadulterated Bacchanalian glee like Luhrmann. I’m not even a party person, and I would LOVE to attend one of Gatsby’s parties as presented in the movie.

But there’s the problem… Fitzgerald’s book is more than just a couple of parties. If it was just endless hedonism, Luhrmann would have the makings of his magnum opus. But alas, there’s the whole story of Gatsby and his obsession with Daisy Buchanan and her brutish husband Tom and his mistress Myrtle; there’s the secret life of Gatsby that’s slowly revealed; and there are longings and lessons on loyalty and that green beacon. And all witnessed by that most eloquent fifth wheel in American literature, aspiring writer Nick Carraway, played with a blank and befuddled stare by Tobey Maguire that suggests nothing more than being blank and befuddled.

Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other hand, is excellent as Jay Gatsby, with his distracting accent and his verbal tics (yes, he still says “old sport”… a lot.) Gatsby is a guy from North Dakota doing his impersonation of the turn-of-the-century “wealthy gentleman,” and DiCaprio’s nervous energy, which usually seems out of place when he’s playing someone who’s supposed to be a mature adult, is perfect in presenting a man faking his way into society and trying to please in order to fit in.

I don’t know what to say about Carey Mulligan. She has to play one of the most impenetrable characters in literature, Daisy Buchanan. She’s impossible to play because she’s not a character, she an ideal; she’s the construct of the immature young Gatsby. Daisy is put on a pedestal, and even she knows she’s not the image of perfection that Gatsby thinks she is. So all we can do is watch as she shows herself to be unworthy of all that Gatsby does for her, even though she never asked for any of it. When reading a book, the reader can create his or her image of the ideal Daisy Buchanan for whom Gatsby would move mountains. Carey Mulligan is a fine actress, but she’s been given such an Olympian task. And, like Daisy Buchanan, you just feel bad for her having to be put under such pressure and come up short.

Though some of the performances may be lacking, the movie looks gorgeous, and a standing ovation must be given to the artist who is this movie’s MVP, production designer and costume designer Catherine Martin. She is Luhrmann’s chief collaborator, and the work she does here, like her Oscar winning work in Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge, is a wonder to behold. She gives us a fantasia, a garish yet beautiful vision of the Roaring Twenties that anybody looking for a libidinous good time would be more than happy to live.

But Luhrmann is the wrong person to bring this book to life. With his rapid cutting, disinterest in character, and over the top sense of humor, he’s like Michael Bay if Michael Bay thought he was an artist and not an entertainer. And Luhrmann is just as shallow; there’s a moment when he has DiCaprio actually reaching out to grasp that green beacon! He chooses to end the movie with the book’s famous last line written across the screen. Thankfully, he didn’t feel the need to show actual boats beating against the current.

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2 comments

  1. Joan Fuchsman

    You and I are pretty much in agreement. I’m always interested in what Luhrmann does next, but I think he was off the mark with this one.

    • Cameron

      You’re absolutely right. It’s like he was trying to jam his “style” onto the material, rather than let the material dictate his approach, and it wasn’t a good fit. I’m fascinated by Luhrmann, and even though I’m not a fan, I’m happy there’s a place for his material and love the discussion his work generates.

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