If you’re like me, then when you read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” your first reaction is, “damn, this shit needs to be in 3D.” Lucky for us Baz Luhrmann heard our cries and is on the case. For just his fifth feature length motion picture, the Aussie director has, yet again, superimposed his frenetic, larger-than-life style on a beloved literary institution. While the onscreen effort is pretty to gawk at, when you take “The Great Gatsby” as a whole, this isn’t the best melding of styles. The story of a mysterious man who, at least initially, is all about appearances and the external, the film mirrors this sentiment. Only unlike the book, Luhrmann’s film never delves any deeper, and you’re left cold and empty.
Every time he makes a movie, Luhrmann feels like aftermath of a hyperactive kid left overnight in an unattended candy store. He’s wired, jittery, full of sugar, and running all over the place. Fitzgerald is known for trimming away the excess in his prose, of stripping his narrative down to the bone, but this most recent adaptation of his work is anything but. The movie is all baubles and glitter, and you feel like it’s trying to distract you, like dangling a bit of brightly colored ribbon in front of a cat. Only in this instance the ribbon is a glut of elaborately choreographed party scenes, intricate costumes, and pyrotechnic visual trickery.
While juxtaposing the words of Shakespeare onto gang warfare in Southern California was an inspired choice for Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet,” adding a heavily remixed hip-hop score to the roaring 20s, doesn’t work as well. Jay-Z rhymes as the camera soars over Manhattan, and ghost whispered strains of Alicia Keys from “Empire State of Mind” float among the skyscrapers, and it is forced beyond belief. There is, however, a cool swing version of “Crazy in Love,” so there’s that to hold onto.
In a sanitarium, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who has been diagnosed as morbidly alcoholic and depressed, begins writing his story as form of therapy. This is an awkward, obvious framing device—one not in Fitzgerald’s book—and a continual distraction that makes you feel like you’re listening to a book on tape because they can’t let you go too long without reminding you that you’re being told a story. In the novel, and this adaptation, Nick is a passive character, essentially a delivery system for the story of his neighbor in the new-money rich West Egg neighborhood of Long Island. This shadowy man remains hidden and anonymous, even as he throws extravagant parties that draw a who’s who of New York Society, high and low.
When Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is finally introduced it is literally in a massive burst of fireworks at one of his debauched cartoon galas where exists apart from the crowd. That’s a good indication of the level of subtlety going on in “The Great Gatsby.” For all of its other flaws, this is the biggest drawback to the movie. Luhrmann takes all of the implications, the cleverly hidden little bits, the undertones in the novel, and plasters them all right to the surface. At that moment, Nick’s infatuation with his charming neighbor takes hold and refuses to let go.
But it becomes clear soon enough, that Gatsby has an infatuation of his own, with Nick’s daffy cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Too bad she’s married to philandering former polo player, and old-money heir, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Everyone is obsessed with the surface, with appearances. Gatsby wants, no needs, to appear to be a somebody, a man of great import, and it is this insecurity that drives him. Gossipy and affected, Daisy is similarly motivated. He buys the mansion across the bay from Daisy, obsessing over the green light that burns through the night at the end of her pier. At one point he literally pelts her with the designer shirts he imports from Europe, and she acts as if he’s showering her with diamonds.
The entire production is over the top and melodramatic to distraction. It’s an approach that works to great effect in “Moulin Rouge.” Set, as it is, in the theatrical world of a Parisian cabaret, that makes sense and fits. In “The Great Gatsby,” unfortunately, this strategy is stilted and off-putting. Everyone does what is asked of them well enough, but it isn’t much more than going through the motions. DiCaprio is charming and fast talking, Nick fawns over his new pal as he falls down a hole of booze and pleasure, and Mulligan spends most of the movie staring into the middle distance with wet, dreamy eyes. Edgerton blusters around in every scene, and he alone seems to be having a pretty good time of it.
“Gatsby” works best when the focus remains on the story between Gatsby and Daisy, vapid and exaggerated as it is. All of the rest is window dressing that absorbs attention from the main narrative thrust and steers the story. Too much is made of guarding secrets within and without, dreams of grandeur, and reliving the past. So much time is spent on establishing the story that by the time all of the carefully constructed facades begin to unravel, as cracks form in their respectable veneers—just when the story is the most interesting—the film is on the downward slope.
As a movie, “The Great Gatsby” belongs much more Baz Luhrmann than it does to Fitzgerald’s novel. The director’s fingerprint is on every frame of film. For all the visual gimmicks, the flamboyant celebrations, and intrusive modern flourishes, the film is loud and boisterous, but ultimately empty. Sitting in the theater, gazing at the spectacle, you can’t help but think it will eventually all add up to something, but it never does.