One is easily forgiven for not taking Baz Luhrmann’s decadent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seriously. The idea of opening a newspaper to see The Great Gatsby 3-D in the movie listings feels like a throwaway gag from The Simpsons circa 1996 (like Michael Bay’s The Old Man and the Sea or something of the sort). Luhrmann’s love of excess and visual pomposity would at first seem antithetical to the thematic aims of such an enterprise, but it turns out he’s very nearly perfectly suited for the assignment. For a story revolving around the accumulation of wealth and how it creates a cocoon of triviality that meaningful interaction can’t pierce, who would be better than one of our foremost purveyors of visual overload? The compliment may seem backhanded, but Luhrmann’s empty spectacle gets across the avoidance of substance at the heart of the story just as well as any grounded approach to the source material could have hoped to.
And Luhrmann brings the spectacle like no other. His dedication to visual whiz-bang at all times means moments of quietude and stillness are discarded, but it’s hard to argue with that decision when such deliriously beautiful sequences such as Gatsby’s introduction or his initial reuniting with Daisy are the result. The costumes and set design are more or less a mortal lock to be seen again come Oscar time next year – proof of Luhrmann’s unwavering commitment to pure visual immersion. Much like in his previous films Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann looks to take classical milieus and bring them roaring to life with contemporary music cues, theoretically taking the emotionally remote and giving it a modern spark. The task here falls largely to Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, who serves as an executive producer on the film and integrates numerous tracks from his album collaboration with Kanye West titled Watch the Throne into the movie’s soundtrack. (The score itself is designed by longtime Luhrmann collaborator Craig Armstrong.) At first glance, this marriage looks to be perfect: Watch the Throne after all is essentially the musical equivalent of Jay Gatsby’s gleaming gold car zipping through the Valley of Ashes. But the process isn’t as seamless as, say, Moulin Rouge. For every artfully deployed jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, there’s a music cue where the cognitive dissonance proves too great. By and large, the use of modern hip-hop does in fact augment the film, giving the excesses of the Jazz Age setting a modern corollary.
None of this works unless there’s something tangible for the audience to grasp onto as the camera flies about the screen unconstrained; there needs to be an emotional port for us to dock in order to ride out the visual storm. And Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance provides just that: Displaying a guileless romanticism that he’s been avoiding ever since Titanic, he fashions another in a long line of great performances. Wielding the phrase “old sport” like protective armor, he slowly lets his guard down as the film progresses and manages to create something resonant for the audience to grasp onto. Tobey Maguire is at his most effective when sharing in Gatsby’s wide-eyed optimism, less so when having to convey bitter cynicism in the “present day” sequences that the film is structured around. Carey Mulligan’s assignment is tough – her Daisy Buchanan has to represent both the woman Gatsby idealizes as well as the money-swaddled vacancy at the film’s heart. That she manages to do both and give Daisy dimensions of her own at the same time speak to her incredible value as a performer. Joel Edgerton also does fine work as Tom Buchanan; and Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke and Elizabeth Debicki all provide able supporting turns that fit seamlessly into the picture.
It’s far from perfect. Like most Luhrmann films it demands to be seen on the big screen, dwarfing you in its opulence. And like most Luhrmann films, the swirling cameras and gaudy transitions have the cumulative effect of deadening you to any emotional connection to the material by film’s end – something even the incredibly game performances are unable to overcome. But it’s far from a disaster either. What could have proved to be a nauseating exercise in missing the forest for the trees ends up being quite fantastic, by and large. DiCaprio’s heartfelt performance in the eye of the visual hurricane makes this Gatsby – if not great – very much so worthwhile.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
Running Time: 143 minutes
Budget: $127 million (estimated)
Release Date: May 10, 2013