The Great Gatsby
Sparkles, but lacks soul, writes
F any piece of classic American literature should be depicted on film with wildly decadent and boldly inventive style, it’s The Great Gatsby.
Who was the character of Jay Gatsby himself if not a spinner of grandiose tales and a peddler of lavish dreams?
Baz Luhrmann would seem like the ideal director to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story to the screen yet again, to breathe new life into these revered words, having shaken up cultural institutions previously with films including William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!
This is the man who dared to stage the iconic balcony scene in a swimming pool, so mixing in a little Jay-Z amid the Jazz Age standards strangely makes sense.
But in Luhrmann’s previous films, there still existed a fundamental understanding of the point of the stories he was telling. Beneath their gorgeous trappings, they still reflected the heart and the purpose of the works from which they were drawn.
His Great Gatsby is all about the glitter but it has no soul. The 3D direction magnifies the artificiality.
His camera rushes and swoops and twirls through one elaborately staged bacchanal after another but instead of creating a feeling of vibrancy, it’s repetitive. Rather than creating a sense of immersion and tangibility, the 3D holds you at arm’s length, rendering the expensive, obsessive details as shiny and hollow when they should have been exquisite.
The clothes, especially the dresses Carey Mulligan wears as the elusive, ethereal golden girl Daisy Buchanan, are magnificent – the work of Luhrmann’s wife and frequent collaborator Catherine Martin.
In case it’s been a while since 10th-grade English class, the year is 1922, and young Nick Carraway has moved into a cottage on the nouveau riche Long Island enclave of West Egg with dreams of making it big on the New York Stock Exchange. Across the bay is the old-moneyed community of East Egg, where Nick’s cousin, the dazzling socialite Daisy, lives with her cheating, blue-blooded husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton).
But everyone, regardless of where they’re from, gathers each weekend for wild parties at Gatsby’s palatial abode – which happens to be next door to Nick’s humble house. The normally mysterious Gatsby befriends Nick with hopes of reconnecting with Daisy, the one who got away five years earlier.
Mulligan’s Daisy is more an idea than a fully fleshedout person, but maybe that’s always been the point.
Luhrmann’s adaptation, which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce, lacks the sense of melancholy and longing that emanated from the novel’s pages, even though the script invokes Fitzgerald’s prose early and often through voiceover from Tobey Maguire as our narrator, guide and Fitzgerald stand-in Nick Carraway. Sometimes the words pop right up on screen and linger in the air, but something about hearing and seeing them in this fashion depletes them of the power they provide when we experience them on the written page.
Gatsby, played with well-coifed panache by Leonardo DiCaprio, too often comes off as a needy, clingy stalker rather than tragic figure and victim of the American dream. Luhrmann’s Gatsby doesn’t get that the book was a critical look at a crumbling dream.
The Great Gatsby opens today.