‘The Great Gatsby’ Review
Well, you did it Baz Luhrmann. Even with an enormous budget, outrageous costumes, beautiful actors, native 3D and a camera that can fly around and do just about anything, you still made watching 'The Great Gatsby' just as boring as sitting through 8th period English.
To be fair, reading 'The Great Gatsby' isn't boring. In fact it may be for you, as it was for me, among the first bits of “assigned reading” that you had to begrudgingly admit was enjoyable. A juicy yarn, fascinating setting and big honkin' symbolism ripe on the vine for all readers. (The eyes of Dr. Eckleberg and the blinking green light across the bay have their meanings obvious enough to make a 15 year old feel like a genius.)
'Gatsby's' moralistic take on the decadence of New York and the “Jazz Age” gets great mileage out of spectacle, and Luhrmann doubles-down on this for the first hour of the film. It may cause some purists from the National Arts Club to clutch their pearls in horror, but the hyperactive music video of the film's early scenes aren't so bad if you are willing to go along with it. It's flashy and ridiculous to watch Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgerton pop champagne to hip-hop, but Luhrmann makes a strong case for this representing the essence of the times. Rather than putting up a fight, I went with it and I think most audiences will, too. At first.
Maguire is Nick Carraway, the observer (and, new to this version, writing this story under the auspices of psychiatric care) who is both outside of the moral bankruptcy of the time, but also dipping his toe in its intoxicating pool, too. His cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), is the vacuous wife of Tom (Edgerton), forever desired by the self-made man whose name is suddenly on everybody's lips: Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Gatsby's rather roundabout way of getting Daisy's attention is to throw gargantuan parties – and these ragers are no doubt what drew Luhrmann in, too. 'The Great Gatsby' party sequences make 'Moulin Rouge!' look like an Eric Rohmer film. Eventually Gatsby is able to ingratiate himself to Nick, who sets up a meeting over tea.
Before Jay Gatsby was the mysterious toast of the town, he was an impoverished journeyman adventurer who broke off a relationship with Daisy until he had a toe-hold in society. (Nefarious dealings with the swarthy Semitic Meyer Wolfsheim helped build his enormous fortune.)
Yet when Gatsby has tea with Daisy it's the day he's been dreaming of for five years. “Look at my sh*t!” he basically says, flinging his high thread count shirts at her. This sequence – the climax for me, as far as I'm concerned – is a squealing celebration of excess and the final victory lap for Luhrmann's outstanding design team.
Up until this point, 'The Great Gatsby' hasn't been a real movie. It has been an exercise in flash. But now that the motor of conflict has been cranked up, Luhrmann wants us to down-shift and have us take these character seriously. This is impossible to do. DiCaprio, Mulligan, Maguire and Edgerton are fine as neon-emblazoned symbols, but we care not a whit for them as characters. As performed, they are all far less interesting than the gowns, silverware, bookcases or bannisters that adorn the homes of East and West Egg. (All are passable, with the exception of DiCaprio who can't seem to settle on what kind of accent he's doing. How this made it past post-production is rather curious, unless this is a subtle nod to Gatbsy's false identity.)
Overall, Mr. Luhrmann wants to have his caviar and eat it, too, and the result is a dreadfully boring hour and twenty minute movie after the initial first hour's headrush. Upon reflection, that initial hour isn't exactly flawless, either. While I'm not exactly against using modern music in a period setting, when one does this one has to do it right. Brian May's electronic score in Peter Weir's 'Gallipoli' or James Brown's 'The Big Payback' in 'Django Unchained' are shocking in their dissonance. Luhrmann's much ballyhooed alliance with Jay-Z feels more like elaborate advertising. (The champagne of choice is, indeed, a still current brand.)
Throughout the entire film Maguire's voice-over is visualized with key phrases actually typed out on the screen as if to say THIS IS AN IMPORTANT TEXT. Half the time it is presented in a clever way; the other half you want to shout back, “Yeah, we get it!”
The 1970s version of 'The Great Gatsby' with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston is rightfully derided as being a creaky snooze. Luhrmann's try is certainly charged with caffeine, but strangely (and maybe even because of the antic nature) it ends up being no less of a dud. Perhaps there are just some stories that aren't quite right for movies.
'The Great Gatsby' opens in theaters on May 10.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.