[See previous post: “The Great Gatsby 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio, Baz Luhrmann Shine; Story Essence Lost.”] The role of the enigmatic, larger-than-life Gatsby would seem a difficult one to cast in an age when movie stars have been replaced by whatever pre-digested superhero is easiest to market and promote. Consider us lucky that one of the only movie stars left in American film makes a terrific Gatsby. There are moments when Leonardo DiCaprio, who previously worked with Luhrmann in 1996's Romeo + Juliet, looks the heir apparent to Cary Grant.
Our first head-on shot of Gatsby shows the character as the very embodiment of America's unbridled optimism. His reputation as a good-time Charlie is surpassed only by his opacity. To the hundreds of guests who excitedly converge upon his bedazzled mansion, he's a glamorous riddle, a thrower of epic house parties who might have been a spy or might be related to Kaiser Wilhelm, no one really knows. During the wild, Luhrmann-esque celebration that gets the film going, Nick is stunned that such a rich and powerful charmer would seek him out and offer his companionship, starting the very next day.
Gatsby has his reasons for lifting his veil of secrecy to such a commoner and that reason is, of course, Daisy. As the object of desire for two strong-willed men, Daisy is a tough role to cast. It's a character who's always better left to our imagination. Carey Mulligan, a fine young actress, never quite finds the center of the character, an ideal woman desirous of being desired, yet unable to assume the burden of being Gatsby's obsession.
The best – and only – way to enjoy The Great Gatsby
The best way to enjoy The Great Gatsby – in fact, the only way to enjoy The Great Gatsby – is to ignore its grander themes about the American dream revealed. No one should want Baz Luhrmann to spend over $100 million filming our high-school book report. The Great Gatsby had its best chance to resonate with audiences as the story of a man who labored for years to gain unimaginable wealth and limitless power solely to win back the girl who got away. We'd gladly accept the (sure, fine, whatever) anachronistic music and the visual extremes we gleefully punish Luhrmann for if our hearts broke when Gatsby is stripped of his high-toned artifice to become Jay Gatts once again. But, at the basic character level, The Great Gatsby isn't great enough.
The juxtaposition of ultimately small people against such grand and gaudy excess is part of what makes the novel so effective and where Luhrmann's vision is revealed as disappointingly two-dimensional – ironic, since the film is in 3D, which is sprinkled lightly throughout. There are even characters from the novel that Luhrmann and co-adaptor Craig Pearce simply don't know what to do with, like golfer and proto-modern woman Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki, a fascinating find), mechanic George Wilson (Jason Clarke) and his wife Myrtle (Isla Fisher, tarted up until unrecognizable).
As with all movie adaptations of beloved source material, it's easy to knock The Great Gatsby for what it isn't, than praise it for what it is. One can half-jokingly conclude that Baz Luhrmann took the assignment just to throw money at the party scenes, but his film never feels disrespectful to Fitzgerald or dismissive of his work. It's just harder to be affected by the novel's small, sad truths when the movie version was directed by someone who can only think big.
Dir.: Baz Luhrmann. Scr.: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Elizabeth Debicki, Max Cullen, Callan McAuliffe, Jack Thompson, Barry Otto, Gemma Ward.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby photo: Warner Bros.