DIRECTED BY: Baz Luhrmann
WRITTEN BY: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
STARRTING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Debicki, Adelaide Clemens, Jason Clarke
Divisiveness is a common reaction to risk taking films, and Baz Luhrmann is most definitely a director that takes risks. It’s easy to admire something so outlandish, so utterly single-minded of its own wild vision that it plows headlong through convention and leaves the audience completely breathless (and not always in a good way). Movies such as these tend to either work really, really well, or…well…not so much. There isn’t a lot of room for middle ground here, and as it stands for me Gatsby stands somewhat on the lower end of the scale.
The movie, adapted from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells the story of Nick Carraway, a bond salesman who comes to 20’s New York in search of fortune. After settling in the illustrious neighborhood of West Egg, his curiosities turn to the wild house parties of his next door neighbor, the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. This draws Nick into a world where careless excess is the norm, and the people he thought he knew had darker personas then he may have thought.
The movie largely follows the novels superficial features, the most notable of these features being that much of the story is told through first person narration on the part of Carraway. Tobey Maguire is a pretty good actor, and it’s not as if the writing for the narration is bad (much of it is straight from the novel). It’s simply a case of something that works in written form not working on film. Because Carraway in the novel is largely a passive character, his role isn’t so much to act as a catalyst in events, but to act as an audience view into the world. In the novel, we are privy to his intimate thoughts, his perspectives and viewpoint. There’s a sense that we’re seeing these events through his eyes. On film, though, his intrusive moments of narration ended up taking me out of any sense of intimacy or immediacy, the opposite of how I felt reading the book. It ultimately just left me feeling cold and detached. The film’s best moments are when it takes a prolonged break from narration and lets us see these characters interact for extended periods.
In order to compensate for the fact that Caraway does very little in the books beyond narrate, the film employs a framing device to put his words into some sort of context. The conceit is that he’s now a patient in a psychiatric ward, and the narration is him therapeutically typing down his experiences on paper. Watching all this I couldn’t help but be reminded of Luhrmann’s previous film, Moulin Rouge. Everything from the doomed romance, the murderously jealous man, the anachronistic soundtrack, numerous Bollywood references all feel like a re-visitation of the material covered in Luhrmann’s previous, better film. Largely, though, these are superficial details, so it doesn’t exactly feel like a complete retread per say.
Otherwise, the film generally follows the plot of the novel faithfully. Unfortunately, thanks to the narration, what felt like a flow of narrative and ideas on paper becomes completely disjointed, bouncing months at a time without strong connections between scenes. We’re told what happens by our narrator more then we actually see it happen. These portions are made even more tiring by Maguire’s drawn out over pronunciation of everything he says. It’s a series of vignettes essentially. Their sole connecting factor, outside the narration, is the romance between Gatsby and Nick’s cousin, Daisy.
This, unfortunately, is another one of the film’s core issues for me. In the book, I never really felt the Gatsby/Daisy Romance was anything more than some sort of projected ideal on both of their parts. In other words, Gatsby was more drawn by the idea of Daisy more so than the actual person. Their romance ends up becoming a superficial fling built on a lie. Luhrmann has to have his tragic romance, though, so for the first 2/3 of the movie he ends up treating Gatsby and Daisy as such. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the film didn’t furiously backpedal in its last third to be more in line with the book. Rather than moved or engaged, I instead felt hollow, cheated out of some sort of catharsis or thematic subtext the film may have been trying to get across.
Now Leonardo DiCaprio is a pretty great Gatsby. For me, he’s another borderline “I see the star, not the character” type, but he tends to pick roles that take advantage of that natural star charisma. In fact, I can generally say that the performances in this film were all pretty good (DiCaprio and Edgerton being especial standouts in my eyes). Carey Mulligan as Daisy did well with the material she was given, but I can’t help but feel they underused her a little bit. A lot of the supporting cast was underused. Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker does next to nothing in this movie, and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan is almost inconsequential as the scheming Meyer Wolfsheim. There were a lot of missed opportunities and dispensed scenes from the book (especially in the last third) that rob these characters of any of the impact they had in the book.
The movie does have really strong visual flair, as is to be expected from Luhrmann. The glitzy vision of 20’s Americana is filled with lavish shots of bustling streets, glamorous parties, enough to make the viewer want to jump out of their seats and want to join in. I just wish the movie could have stayed on one of these shots for more than three seconds! I didn’t have as much a problem with this when it was done in Moulin Rouge, but here I don’t feel there’s any real reason outside the parties to cut to a new shot before you can even register the one before. By the film’s halfway point I was pretty much exhausted of the ride and wanted to get off. There was no rhyme of reason to the cuts; it just seems to cut in a desperate attempt to keep the audience’s attention.
And to address the supposed elephant in the room, I…really didn’t mind the use of contemporary music all that much. I’m not really a fan of that kind of music by itself, but it usually fit in the context it was used. My only problem is, though, that its use is sporadic, bouncing between period jazz and contemporary music at seemingly random times. It reflects the films refusal to commit to any of its aesthetic choices entirely, leaving a bold but confused mess in its wake. There is an audience for this movie, though, and I can see why some might like it. For me, though, its fluff masquerading as something deep, and what flashes of brilliance there are is buried under a heap of half-baked ideas and unfocused themes. In other words, it feels like a guy sitting at his desk and typing out a novel in a stream of conscious fashion…wait a minute…