The Great Gatsby
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carrey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire
There are few directors I find as perplexing as Baz Luhrmann, best known for films like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.” He’s known for big, garish spectacles that lay on heavy coats of polish style being far more important to him than substance. If he were a make-up artist, every subject would come out of the trailer looking like a painted whore. The man either lacks or willfully disregards the concept of subtlety. He’s a bedazzled jackhammer that shatters our senses. He’s sound and fury, signifying nothing.
There are only a handful of movies I have walked out of; Baz Luhrmann directed two of them. So when I heard it was Luhrmann who would be helming a big-screen adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” I shrugged my shoulders and resigned myself to believe this movie wasn’t going to be for me.
Luhrmann’s films are like cocaine-fueled assemblies: bright colors, lightning-fast edits, and an-over-the-top sensibility that would make even the great John Waters cringe. “The Great Gatsby” might be his most palatable production since “Strictly Ballroom,” a movie I rather enjoy. Since the simple pleasures of “Strictly Ballroom,” Luhrmann has been on a mind-fucking tear of hyperactive lunacy.
“The Great Gatsby” starts out like his other films: It’s a big, lumbering behemoth that cuts back and forth frantically between archival footage and staged scenes. It blends voice-over narration and music in a caffeine-fueled cocktail.
We’re introduced to Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a young man dreaming of an exciting life in New York City. He works in finance and moves into a modest little house in the shadow of the palatial estate of Mr. Jay Gatsby. Nick is fascinated by this mysterious figure, who has taken the New York social scene by storm.
Nick manages his way into high society with the help of his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is married to a man of means, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Their marriage has seen better days. Tom has a mistress in the city. Nick ends up as a passive witness to the lives of these social climbers, a fly on the wall observing the drinking and debauchery. That is, until he meets Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nick becomes fascinated with his neighbor. He embodies everything Nick aspires to me: not just a man of wealth, but a man of integrity and passion. Of course, beneath the gilded façade is something far more human. It turns out Gatsby is a self-made man who is trying to make up for past mistakes, most importantly the loss of his true love: Nick’s cousin, Daisy.
I don’t think I need to delve too much deeper into the plot. There are few books as familiar and as studied as “The Great Gatsby.”Anybody who made it past seventh grade has no doubt turned in a book report on this one.
The themes of Gatsby are all there: the horrible price of obsession, the emptiness of our materialistic society, and the corruption of the American Dream. Luhrmann sticks obsessively close to the source material making Nick read lines straight from the book, just to be sure that no one misses the point. It’s blunt, like someone talking right into your ear and asking you every five minutes: “Did you get it?”
The fact that I enjoyed “The Great Gatsby” comes as something of a shock. Sure, the first 15 minutes is an endurance test of quick cuts and rapid fire dialogue. One scene in particular has characters talking over one another like they made a bet to see who could get their lines out the fastest. There’s big flashes of light and sound, dance numbers, a huge party, and loud music blaring. Just as I was starting to check out mentally, DiCaprio shows up as Gatsby and everything sort of settles.
I credit the success of “The Great Gatsby” to a cast of excellent actors who manage to make something entertaining in spite of Luhrmann’s every effort to destroy the film. It ends up working not because of Baz Luhrmann but in spite of him.
I can’t recall a film that seems almost at odds with its own director. There’s this really interesting character drama going on as Luhrmann throws so much at the screen. It’s like he’s trying to strangle the film with a string of pearls or bury the film alive with shovels full of glitter. Fortunately, the substance claws its way out.
Every intimate scene is bookended with garish over-stylized visuals. It spends too much time reveling in its hip-hop-heavy soundtrack. Those kind of moments seem to exist only to declare, “Hey, kids! This shit is relevant, yo!” Yet, underneath the noise and fake computer-generated visuals is a pretty decent drama.
It’s not perfect by any stretch. It’s only salvaged by some really good actors, namely DiCaprio and Edgerton. They bring a lot of energy and charisma to their respective roles. I don’t know if I’d call it “The Great Gatsby,” but it’s definitely “The Good Gatsby.”