The distinctive, vista-obsessed movies of Baz Luhrmann are nothing if not stylish, generally flamboyant and lavish in their candy-colored visual treatments. Subtlety has never been of much interest to the Australian filmmaker who has leaned heavily on melodrama and romantic fairy tales told in a passionate, bright Technicolor style. But sincerity and resplendent ardor have generally anchored his always-plush films, even when they’ve been too long and affected (“Australia”) or overpowered with the odor of teen angst (“Romeo + Juliet”). Luhrmann, it seems, was born to tell stories of impossible love in the most sumptuous ways possible.
Having made only five films in 21 years, Luhrmann doesn’t work at a hurried pace, and this is largely due to his ambitious aims. His latest, an opulent and stylish postmodern adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s seminal novel, “The Great Gatsby,” is profusely ambitious and therefore almost obscenely overwrought. Kaleidoscopic, excessive observations have always been Luhrmann’s bread and butter, but in ‘Gatsby’ (along with 3D that just feels superfluous given the director’s affinity for immersion) the panoramic fireworks work against him for the first time.
Set against the scenic backdrop of the economically prosperous Roaring Twenties jazz-age of New York and Long Island, perhaps a filmmaker consumed with ostentatiously-told stories about doomed love isn’t the best fit to tell this story of doomed love and empty elegance in an age of excess. Perhaps not so counterintuitively, “The Great Gatsby” is overkill almost every step of the way.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the titular and mysterious Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire who insinuates himself into the upper crust of Long Island society with a vast fortune that’s implied to be ill-gotten. A man alone in his enormous castle, Gatsby’s entire raison d’être, we’re soon to learn, is winning back the love of an old paramour, New York socialite Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). But Daisy is now married to old-money heir Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who’s more interested in a life of leisure and his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). The guide through this tale, just like the novel, of course is Yale graduate and World War I veteran Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a cousin of Daisy’s, and but a modest bonds salesman. Doubling as the film’s narrator, he soon finds himself in the crosshairs of intrigue of one Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby has set up shop in Long Island in a luxuriant mansion across the bay from the Buchanan residence. Night after night he throws extravagant, orgiastic parties in the hopes that one day, Daisy will walk through the door as a guest. Ingratiating himself to Carraway, Gatsby attracts the more-impressionable younger man on to his team, so to speak, and manipulates him to help bring Daisy into his honeypot. But as Gatsby gets close to winning Daisy back, his true past and identity is revealed and his impenetrable cool and composure soon unravels. Living in a dream all this time, the facade of class and stature that Gatsby hides behind crumbles, and thus so too does the man.
But for all its passionate feeling and melodrama, ‘Gatsby’ is rarely moving, and that’s a major flaw for a movie that drags on for two-and-a-half hours. “The Great Gatsby” is ultimately an epic tragedy, a parable about America, the American dream ethos and its consequences, but the movie’s overblown style chokes the life out of any substance the story may have. And while faithful to Fitzgerald’s novel, some of its themes just don’t track within the movie. Carraway is supposed to be practically besotted with his friend Gatsby. As in the novel, the wide-eyed character is in awe of Gatsby’s “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…an extraordinary gift for hope…such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” The problem with such convenient, lofty proverbs ripped from the book is that the movie never actually demonstrates them, so they are not only unbelievable and hard to buy emotionally, but hollow sentiments. The word “hope,” repeated often, is meant to be a theme, but in the film Gatsby is mostly seen as a charlatan whose reach exceeds his grasp. What good is in him other than taking shortcuts for love, we’re apparently supposed to just invent in our imaginations. So aside from his ill-conceived aspirations (that eventually lead him nowhere), it’s a wonder why Carraway is so taken with this aloof protagonist who’s consistently hard to empathize with.
A kind of visual and sonic overkill, “The Great Gatsby” never knows when to say when. Music-wise the movie is often at its most egregious, the use of the anachronistic modern songs in the movie frequently border on ridiculous. Sure, sprinkles of modern juxtaposition can work (see the films of Quentin Tarantino that seem to pull it off), but near wall-to-wall songs, modern or otherwise, are quickly grating and overbearing. Luhrmann’s stylistic approach to ‘Gatsby’ seems to scream “reeeeemix!” at all times. Jay-Z, the modern hustler, is perhaps the perfect person to pull together the soundtrack to Jay Gatsby, the jazz-age con artist. And while it’s a cute recontextualization of themes, it comes across as a stylistic flourish that lends no weight to the film. Lana del Ray’s obnoxious heartbreak song is played ad nauseum, and the parties! It’s as if Luhrmann is convinced that this age of decadence and debauchery was one big techno pop rave, so why not just pump up the volume and zoom the camera around with shebang, pow, pop and whiz.
Shot by Simon Duggan (“I Robot,” “Live Free or Die Hard,” no past Luhrmann films), surprisingly enough, 3D is an issue as well. We’ve seen the medium used to breathtaking effect by visual masters like James Cameron, Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, and given Luhrmann’s penchant for dazzling eye candy, the stereoscopic technology should be right at home. But whereas 3D needs to breathe to fully luxuriate, Luhrmann’s film is all impatient, cut, cut, cut like a music video, never letting the medium truly shine outside of a few shots obviously designed to be epic and immersive. The movie’s fondness for romantic superimposition and dissolves doesn’t work well within the medium, and neither do whip pans or camera moves that are too abrupt. Also featuring appearances by Jason Clarke, Adelaide Clemens, Amitabh Bachchan and Elizabeth Debicki as the aloof golfer and socialite Jordan Baker, ‘Gatsby’ is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talent, but rarely do these performers receive an honest moment.
Despite a hackneyed flashback framing-device narrative that feels cheap and hardly effective, ‘Gatsby’ has some moments that are worthwhile. When it’s finished its battering-ram attack of convincing you this decade and milieu are extravagant (which lasts about the first 2/3rds of the movie — we get it!), the picture slows down to a simmer of melodrama that would make Douglas Sirk proud. It also finally give its tremendous cast a moment to act instead of simply dangling like marionettes in a theatrical extravaganza about love, loss and the pitfalls of having everything except the one true thing you desire more than anything in the whole world. DiCaprio is good, no doubt, even in a role that’s largely unsympathetic (another problem with ‘Gatsby’ is its lack of protagonist as the POV keeps shifting from Carraway back to Gatsby and so forth), but Mulligan is almost a lovelorn stand-in with nothing to do but look troubled in her immaculately tailored costumes. As the arrogant and brute-ish Tom, Edgerton probably has the meatiest role, but he too mostly has to sneer as the haughty villain of the picture. Maguire is such a non-entity, one wonders what his career would do without the “Spider-Man” films.
Despite its need to beat you over the head with its lavishness, there are moments when Luhrmann’s sound and vision (a better-than-the-soundtrack score by Craig Armstrong helps) is admittedly spectacular. The expressive ‘Gatsby’ also has the power to transport, but the main problem is that it never lifts the audience to anywhere of significance other than the clouds where the party fireworks have already evaporated. With the sound off, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” surely looks as radiant and extraordinary as some of the most dazzling movies ever committed to celluloid, but with the sound up and the experience on full volume, the movie is mostly a cacophony of style, excess and noise that makes you want to turn it all down a notch…or three… [C+]