The Great Gatsby
dir. Baz Luhrmann
Release Date: May 10, 13
More than any other movie of the moment, I’ve been anxiously anticipating Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby with a mixture of excitement and utter dread. Luhrmann is a visionary and a gamble as a helmer, whose achievements are all over the place. Most people familiar with Luhrmann’s work believe he has made two great films and two misfires, and no one seems to agree on which. I’m partial to the romantic dadaism of Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom, but less so enamored of Romeo + Juliet and Australia. Luhrmann is such an original that I like his method applied to his own madness, and his faux-adaptations of Shakespeare and Gone With the Wind didn’t sit well. He may be an iconoclast, but his style tends to clash with the period decor. It’s not forward thinking. It’s tacky.
With The Great Gatsby, would we get Moulin Rouge or Australia? It turns out we got both, a movie that is half terrible and half brilliant. As much as I like Luhmann’s showmanship, his auteur instincts get in the way of simply telling the story, and I liked the film better when it got around to being about Gatsby. The first 45 minutes delay the entrance of Jay Gatsby (nee James Gatz) as it sets up the story with lavish party scenes endlessly hammering home the extravagance of the 1920s.
Personally, I found Luhrmann’s partying miserable, like being the only sober one in a room full of drunk loons. All of the colors were too bright, the energy too frenetic and the pacing conducted with the grace of a liquored-up goose. Was I supposed to find these people intoxicating? The early scenes introduce us to Nick Carraway, a mouth-breathing social climber played with ample heaving by the fetus-faced Tobey Maguire, an actor who lacks both a personality and a discernible pulse. The novel plays the enigmatic Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) as a foil to Nick Carraway, but here she gets lost in the noise. We have nothing to grab onto or take us through the wild ride.
The problem is that Luhrmann seems far more enamored with his anachronistic confections than we do, and the film’s modernist touches distract from and confound the narrative rather than adding to it. Moulin Rouge seamlessly blended the pop with the avant-garde, but the neon color palette and ubiquitous Jay-Z and Beyonce on the soundtrack here don’t blend. It’s like drinking a strawberry smoothie mixed with sawdust. Many compare Luhrmann’s bombast with Michael Bay’s, but Bay doesn’t have Luhrmann’s nose for satire. I hoped that Luhrmann shared my sense of boredom, and Gatsby’s fetes grandes were designed to be the world’s worst parties, bad acid trips full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
If that’s true, Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is an ideal vehicle, a femme less fatale than shallow, pretentious and insipid. Daisy introduces herself hand-first, nestled amongst the world’s most over-the-top billowing curtains. She speaks in a loud whisper, meant to command the room with her imitation of feminine girlishness. Daisy is Nick’s cousin and shares his interest in the poses and affectations of wealth, a hollow projection of Gatsby’s American Dream. In the film’s most breathtakingly executed scene, Gatsby meets Daisy again after years of building a palace to her, a home that will give her anything and everything she could want, her Xanadu. Gatsby looks at Daisy intently, but can he see her? We aren’t sure what he sees.
Although Mulligan flawlessly embodies what we imagine Daisy Buchanan to be like, the film’s heart and soul is Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s the best he’s ever been as Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio, who often gets by on good looks rather than real acting chops, relies here on many of the tropes we’ve seen in his performances before: the affected accent, the swindler’s charisma and the hint of boyish innocence. Luhrmann, however, puts all of it to perfect use. After Inception and Shutter Island, DiCaprio can play longing in his sleep, and his intensity gives Gatsby a hint of danger we’ve rarely seen in previous adaptations.
Aside from Maguire’s so-so Carraway, the rest of the actors turn in solid work, even if Luhrmann forgets to use them. Isla Fisher was born to play Myrtle Wilson, but she gets few lines. Other than perish in the most over-the-top car wreck in cinema history, I can remember nothing she does in the film, and newcomers to the story might be unclear of who she is. Jason Clarke is similarly a non-entity as her husband, Wilson, the husband unaware of her infidelities with Daisy’s husband, Tom, played for maximum thugishness by the superb and terrifying Joel Edgerton. The camera is so obsessed with Gatsby that it often forgets about the universe around him.
Although I liked the film enough to recommend it, what I liked more was that no one seemed to agree with me (or each other) about the film. I like a movie that sparks genuine debate. No one liked all of it (and some enjoyed the film more than others), but everyone took away something different, whether they liked the film best as camp, melodrama, soap opera or tragedy. Like Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann wants to fill his cinematic palace with every tone we could want or need, a wild mix of tones and anachronisms. Luhrmann wanted to impress me with his wealth and fortune, but I admired the ground that house was built on, the literary foundation that gave life to Gatsby’s universe. Luhrmann wants to give audiences the world. All we asked for was F. Scott Fizgerald’s novel. It’s the simplest gifts that mean the most.