'The Great Gatsby' 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio shines bright, but 'small, sad truths' lost in the glitz
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is the best version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel ever committed to the screen. But don't get too excited. The bar is very low. The book has been made into three feature films, including a 1926 silent film regrettably lost, and one TV movie. The last big-screen version was in 1974, a Jack Clayton-directed misfire that starred a lifeless Robert Redford in the title role. Here, the doomed personification of the money-solves-everything American thesis is played by a winning Leonardo DiCaprio who shines like an old-fashioned movie star. But shining even brighter than DiCaprio in this $127 million production is, of course, its director.
For better or worse, Baz Luhrmann is a brand name, a noun that can double as an adjective. You know exactly what you're getting when you step into one of his funhouses of color, sound, and CGI, and to expect something else is to criticize Baz Luhrmann for making a Baz Luhrmann film. And yet, in the context of this source material, his over-the-top rendering of the bubbly bacchanalias that establish the heights from which Gatsby must fall is completely justified and one of the more appropriate uses of Luhrmann's gifts.
Where his iteration of the venerated source material teeters is when the hip-hop music stops playing, the champagne stops flowing, and Gatsby's true motivations are revealed. Subtleties of mood and the complexities of multiple, intertwining characters are just not in Luhrmann's wheelhouse.
The Great Gatsby 2013: 'Mild success' lacking 'emotional swing'
I guess one can say, with apologies to Duke Ellington, “it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that emotional swing” – the one that sees Gatsby devolve from post-WWI hedonist to heartbreakingly empty soul who has destroyed himself trying to reclaim the love of Daisy Buchanan (played by Carey Mulligan). That said, Luhrmann did get closer to the target than many would have thought possible, certainly enough to proclaim The Great Gatsby a mild success. It's also fair to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald's third and most celebrated novel may just be too difficult to translate to the screen effectively.
The Great Gatsby was originally slated for release in December 2012, but was pulled from the Warner Bros. schedule. This is never a good sign, no matter how a studio spins it. With the extra months of reconsideration, Luhrmann should have scaled back the WTF framing device, where a suicidally alcoholic Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) sits in a sanitarium furiously writing about his time with Gatsby like a Jazz Era Jack Kerouac.
With his ever-boyish face always in a state of slight wonderment, Maguire goes from innocent to less innocent, which is the smallest arc one can travel with this character and still make it work. As Nick conveys via narration (which also should have been scaled back), he came to New York with dreams of being a bond trader in the heady, pre-Crash year of 1922. He has taken residence in an unimpressive home in West Egg, Long Island, right across the sound from his cousin Daisy (Mulligan) and her insensitive, racist husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, well-cast).
One can't imagine what attracted Daisy to Tom in the first place, although his massive amounts of inherited wealth would be a good guess. This contrasts nicely with Gatsby who, as we know from novel and film, came from nothing and earned his fortune through the hard work that became synonymous with American moxie (or, one can argue, American folly).
The Great Gatsby 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio is the 'heir apparent to Cary Grant'
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.