The best thing in the world for a Baz Lurhmann movie to be is a beautiful little fool. The Aussie director’s particular brand of whizz-bang cinematic mayhem has livened up adaptations of the literary cannon before, and a camera whirring among the champagne and the CGI stars is actually not an illogical way to cover F. Scott Fizgerald’s biting depiction of the gaudy and unfulfilling artifice of the Jazz Age. Unfortunately, the star of this sparkiest Sparknotes adaptation is not Jay Gatsby, nor Baz’s stylistic excess, nor even the Jay-Z curated, anachronistic score. It is the words themselves. The film hangs on Fitzgerald’s prose so hard well-known quotes physically appear on the screen, and they have same impact as on a 10th grade English quiz: vaguely important and completely meaningless.
Unlike Lurhman’s more successful foray into highbrow fare with Romeo + Juliet, the emotion here is smothered by the glossy visual style and plodding narrative reverence. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the enigmatic Mr. Gatsby, barely escapes with his dignity intact, and Carey Mulligan, entirely too intelligent and sympathetic to make a convincing ditz as Daisy Buchanan, does little better. The romance between the two stops the film cold after the first hour, and whether you know how their affair ends or not, believe me, you will want it to. Tobey Maguire manages the proceedings as consummate observer Nick Carraway, and the script’s choice to frame the film through Nick’s reminiscences at a sanitarium ultimately drowns our own opportunities to observe or the film’s to illustrate things visually. Haven’t y’all ever heard of show, don’t tell?
The first hour does have a little more pep in its step. Lurhman has that special gift for making an apartment party into an orgastic bacchanal, and the contemporary score carries the excitement and attitude of the young slickers and dames aspiring stockbroker Carraway finds himself involved with in the summer of 1922. If anything, Lurhman could have created a cutting tempo more like a Beyonce video to go along with it, instead choosing to employ an aerial camera continually skimming over the Long Island sound. It reinforces that green light, to be sure, but it’s odd to watch such expansive, sweeping movements when they don’t have, like, the topography of New Zealand to cover.
That said, the CG rendering of Manhattan, West and East Egg, and all the physical mis-en-scene is impeccable: so tactile, exaggerated, and rich that Douglas Sirk could hardly complain. Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki are especially magnetizing as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s blue-blooded beast of a husband, and Jordan Baker, the hawkish, socialite golfer Daisy means to pair with Nick. And much of the film’s early humor lands right on. To explain would be to spoil the moment, but the movie features one of the more inspired uses of Gershwin since Fantasia.
But by T.J. Eckleberg’s rusty rims, the film stops dead in its tracks the moment Daisy and Gatsby come face to face. Lurhman has said publicly he was drawn to the property as an epic love story, and here epic seems to mean slowed shot speed and long stretches of anguished stares interrupted by a increasingly obvious voiceover doling on backstory and motivation a better movie would provide wordlessly. Nick’s disembodied intrusions kill what tension there is, and despite the decent chemistry between Mulligan and DiCaprio, their plight comes across as mechanical and dull. So, at least I guess I finally understand what it was like for most people to read The Great Gatsby in high school.
When you throw away structure and nuance in favor of style, that style has to be pretty damned fabulous to work. The 3D in Great Gatsby is fine, but it will not advance the form. Oh, the parties at Gatsby’s house are appropriately, lavishly Busby Berkeley-esque. But Lurhman eschews a more sophisticated play with depth in favor of using the screen to write Fitzgerald’s words and fill in Gatsby and Daisy’s history with celestial projections and sepia-toned flashbacks. He throws pretty much everything he can think of – split screens, degraded footage, dolly zooms – at the screen, without sufficient regard for the emotion these devices need to be carrying. It is the cinematic equivalent of having a library full of unread books. If film form isn’t a matter of infinite hope for you, friend, save your IMAX money and buy the soundtrack.
What we’re left with is an adaptation so showy and at the same time reverential that it’s suffocating. You can tell the film wants to go a little bit The Bad and the Beautiful in its treatment of Gatsby, mythologizing a tragic figure Fitzgerald himself chooses to lay painfully bare. Nick’s voiceovers are filled with longing. Instead of the sad, thoughtful man who comes to understand, through Gatsby, the true nature of the American dream, what we get from him is Tobey’s mopeyface. Maguire does fine with the material he’s given. But overall, The Great Gatsby itself tries to grasp at the green light instead of illustrating how and why it is we fail to do so.
It’s livelier than the Redford adaptation, produced and acted to the nines, but Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby stumbles over its chances of being a good movie trying to get the novel hella right. It doesn’t do that, either.
Take a Drink: every time Tobey Maguire is so drunk it alters the visuals in some way.
Take a Drink: whenever Gatsby calls someone “Old Sport”
Take a Drink: for every sweeping aerial shot across the Long Island sound.
Take a Drink: whenever the T.J. Eckleberg sign appears.
Take a Drink: whenever actual Fitzgerald text appears onscreen.
Finish Your Drink: once you are so over Nick’s voiceovers.