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by Eric Kohn
May 6, 2013 1:23 PM
15 Comments
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With 'The Great Gatsby,' Does Baz Luhrmann Prove He's More Gratuitous Than Michael Bay?

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Great Gatsby."
The least interesting aspects of Baz Luhrmann's unsurprisingly lavish near-musical adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" come from the source material. That should surprise exactly no one. More to the point, the sprawling tale of millionaire loner Jay Gatsby (a confident Leonardo DiCaprio) yearning to be reunited with former flame Daisy (Carey Mulligan on mopey autopilot) has been rendered as a series of soap opera interludes in between the director's typically dazzling setpieces. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel certainly has its fair share of melodrama, but Luhrmann never displays any interest in finding its emotional core. Released in ostentatious 3D, set to a contemporary soundtrack by Jay-Z and shot with a soaring virtual camera that celebrates every corner of the affluent scenario, Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" has the hallmarks of a contemporary Hollywood spectacle. It's missing the explosions, but make no mistake: "Gatsby" is one glitzy misfire.

Ever since the global dominance of the "Transformers" franchise, Michael Bay has been singled out as the reigning king of studio-produced indulgences. Luhrmann, whose attempt at old school Hollywood romance with "Australia" bombed hard, may not have quite the same track record for pandering to audiences' basest sensibilities. Yet his take on "Gatsby" suffers the same hollow style-over-substance issues -- in this case, flimsily obscured by mock allegiance to a classy text -- that have assailed Bay's movies. The difference is that Bay owns up to it. 

READ MORE: Critics Aren't Dazzled By 'Gatsby'

Much of the plot in "Gatsby" is unchanged: In 1922, Crestfallen narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, the most believable, impressive screen presence for the duration of the movie) moves out to the North Shore of Long Island, right next door to the elusive Gatsby, whose expensive house parties unfold like gigantic, champagne-fueled Jazz Age clich├ęs. Gatsby eventually enlists Nick to help him win back Daisy, Carraway's cousin, in spite of her marriage to the confident Tom Buchanan (a stern Joel Edgerton). Romance ensues, followed by inevitable tragedy, setting the stage for a grand prelude to the Great Depression -- one last hurrah before history's dark turns take over. Luhrmann nails the hurrah but fails to rein it in. The movie is consumed by the same excess that Fitzgerald's novel treats skeptically. Even the omniscient eyes of T.J. Eckleberg on the billboard near town, an iconic image emblazoned on the cover of "Gatsby" for decades, has been rendered as yet another colorful prop in the filmmaker's collage of technical achievements.

It's impossible not to admire Luhrmann's penchant for candy-colored displays on the level of craftsmanship alone.
It's impossible not to admire Luhrmann's penchant for candy-colored displays. He announces Gatsby's arrival in a marvelous tableaux set to the crescendo of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," with DiCaprio introducing himself to Maguire against the backdrop of a house party.  Fireworks erupt on cue. The moment is so elegantly timed that viewers may feel compelled to applaud. But when nitty gritty plot details arrive, "Gatsby" turns hopelessly theatrical, with tensions flaring between the main characters in a series of rushed confrontations that play second fiddle to gratuitous sets seemingly divorced from the actions they depict: a slo-mo car crash looks cool first, creates a modicum of suspense second. A party scene in which Nick and Tom cavort with a group of women in a cramped New York apartment stands out for its speed and fashion more than its relevance to the narrative. 

Beyond that, the contemporary soundtrack is more jarring than the arrival of hip hop in "Django Unchained," a movie that did a better job of marrying cartoonish sensibilities with a historical framework. In Luhrmann's "Gatsby," the music cues might be an obvious grab at shifting the material into an allegory for modern times, but they have the same distracting qualities of an ostentatious CGI feat: Look over here!

At least "Transformers" doesn't try to mask its pricey treats with self-serious drama. Luhrmann seems to relish the opportunity to explore the period while regarding the book as a burden. And yet, like Bay, Lurhmann has an undeniable ability to churn out grandiose cinematic tapestries. In "Moulin Rouge," the ubiquitous flashiness fit the proceedings. He has arguably never done better than 1996's "Romeo + Juliet," which smartly found the contemporary genre hooks in Shakespeare's story while keeping the intensity of the source material intact. "Gatsby," by contrast, falls into the same trappings of its characters, whom Nick famously derides for "retreating into their money and vast carelessness." Bound to make many millions of dollars, "Gatsby" is a familiar story in more ways than one.

Criticwire grade: C-
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15 Comments

  • pam | May 10, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    right on the money ,Eric

  • doug | May 7, 2013 5:20 PMReply

    I saw this film. I agree with your analysis. I believe that some books are not reproducible in film form. Perhaps the director attempted to be too faithful to the book, so the product fails to deliver credible characters.

  • peter | May 7, 2013 1:03 PMReply

    Nice review! Honestly who did not see this coming?

  • Jordan | May 7, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    Alan (below) clearly thinks that capitalizing phrases makes them true. Onto the film... I am disappointed about the reviews. I cannot say anything about the film itself as I haven't seen it yet but it seems almost unanimous that film failed to deliver on it's promise. Eric, I think you do establish the intellectual core when you say that "The movie is consumed by the same excess that Fitzgerald's novel treats skeptically," and I think the emotional core is very much connected to that and the sense that things aren't want they seem. We feel Carraway's alienation from a society that appears to value all of the things we value (wealth, success, liberty, fun, judgement) but these values when taken to such excess seem grotesque and actually conflict with other values we have. What disappoints me is that Baz Luhrmann seemed like a great director to deliver the message but it seems like he indulged in it rather than employed it to make the point.

  • Alan B | May 7, 2013 8:59 PM

    THAT's the EMOTIONAL core? "Skepticism"? Considering that the book's final passages of HOPE is one of the most famous pieces of writing in literary history, I am a little stunned by that assessment. I am not saying this is THE ONE UNIVERSAL EMOTIONAL CORE of the story, but I don't how you can a writer cannot acknowledge hope in some way, considering its importance in the story. And how is "skepticism" an EMOTIONAL core, anyway? How about mild irritation? Or slight dislike? Kohn doesn't address the book's "emotional core"; it's just another of his empty, unexamined attacks on Luhrmann.

  • Alan B | May 7, 2013 9:35 AMReply

    "Luhrmann never displays any interest in finding its emotional core."

    I couldn't even get through the first paragraph without wincing. The writing is truly baffling, especially the way in which you throw out a claim and fail to address it. This is Writing 101. For instance, if you accuse the film of failing to capture the source material's "emotional core", then you need to DEFINE THE "EMOTIONAL CORE" OF THE BOOK. Your review makes NO ATTEMPT: what IS the "emotional core" of the book? How has Luhrmann failed to express it? Those questions would actually be a spark for an ACTUALLY INTERESTING review of the film, instead you just huff as if Luhrmann just doesn't GET IT, without bothering to explain what IT is. And - maybe, just maybe - there is no UNIVERSAL "emotional core", and that individuals engage with different aspects of the text. I don't want to defend the film because it looks terrible, but I am certain that - if it is "bad" - then it is bad for reasons beyond your understanding.

  • Ana | May 7, 2013 5:58 AMReply

    The minute I saw the preview for this film I could tell it would be a whole lot of glitz and glamor but I didn't quite see as much of 'Gatsby' amidst all of it, of the novel that I so enjoyed reading in high school. I think this is a pretty spot-on review.

  • Little My | May 7, 2013 4:28 AMReply

    "in this case, flimsily obscured by mock allegiance to a classy text -- that have assailed Bay's movies. The difference is that Bay owns up to it"

    When Australia bombed Nicole Kidman took the blame it was her fault that the film failed, who is going to take the axe this time? will Baz own up?

  • Craig | May 7, 2013 2:13 AMReply

    What did you really expect? A subtle adaptation in the tradition of Merchant Ivory? Luhrmann likes to use hyperkinetic visuals to confuse people ... you know, make them believe he knows what he's doing. I get the feeling that Joel Schumacher and RAISING ARIZONA are Luhrmann's major cinematic influences. He's not very good and I hope after this failure he just goes away.

  • Johnny Futbol | May 7, 2013 1:12 AMReply

    "He has arguably never done better than 1996's 'Romeo + Juliet'..." I'm glad to finally find someone else who feels this way. I'm not sure what it is about about 'Moulin Rouge,' but it just doesn't really work for me, and it seems like the sort of thing that should.

  • Adam | May 6, 2013 11:51 PMReply

    Who cares how gratuitous it is. Does this really warrant an article written about it?

  • Adam | May 6, 2013 11:51 PMReply

    Who cares how gratuitous it is. Does this really warrant an article written about it?

  • theresa | May 6, 2013 8:03 PMReply

    The book is great. The movie does not make justice to an era.

  • Patrick | May 6, 2013 4:54 PMReply

    It would seem to me that Mr. Lurhmann's films have gotten progressively worse through the years.

  • herb | May 6, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    Totally agree with this review. What a waste.