Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby
reminds me a lot of that incredibly sexy blonde Indianapolis Colts cheerleader I dated for awhile a few years back. She served up paint-by-numbers emotions with very little substance but, my god, I couldn't stop looking at her anyway.
Sometimes, I must confess, I found myself wanting to look at her and just say "Please, just shut up. Let me look at you and everything will be okay."
The same is true for The Great Gatsby,
with Luhrmann doing everything he can to force-feed us histrionic emotions against the backdrop of his overwrought stylings that seem designed only to make us watch the film and go "Yep, that's a Baz Luhrmann film."
If you've seen Romeo & Juliet,
then you know what to expect. If you've seen Moulin Rouge,
then you know what to expect. If you've seen Australia!,
then you know what to expect.
Oh, wait. Nobody's seen Australia!
There's a brilliant film dwelling deep inside Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby,
but Luhrmann can't seem to get out of the way long enough for the film to surface. In the end, The Great Gatsby
is the worst kind of grandiose cinema because it's more bland than bold despite being served up in 3-D and despite Luhrmann's usual strong artistic strikes and Jay-Z's musical touch.
It's difficult to imagine that anyone made it out of high school without reading Fitzgerald's 1922 classic novel of the same name, but if you're one of those who skimped your way through it and crashed for the exam using the "Cliff's Notes" (Boy, am I dating myself there?) then suffice it to say rather summarily that the story is an indictment of the era into which it was birthed and its celebration of excess and riches. Fitzgerald's novel, far more successfully than any film that has tried to capture it, found the language to create a world that painted the seductiveness of riches without being seduced by it. I can't help but believe that such an impact is exactly what Luhrmann is striving for here.
He almost gets there and he almost gets there and he almost gets there.
He never gets there.
The Great Gatsby
never arrives, but there are moments when it gets maddeningly close. There are scenes where it becomes crystal clear exactly what Luhrmann is going for here, but he can't quite get himself out of the way long enough to make it happen and, I must say, that his cast is also simply not up to the task of bringing to life a cinematic variation of the Fitzgerald novel that weaves together the cool jazz of the 1920's with the driving beats of contemporary hip-hop culture.
It starts with Leonardo DiCaprio, who looks the part of J. Gatsby and tries like crazy to exude both the brashness and the emptiness of a man who tried to buy everything in an effort to obtain the one thing he couldn't seem to have, Daisy, portrayed by Carey Mulligan with a personality that feels like Marilyn Monroe meets Madonna. It's as if Mulligan herself never quite decided if Daisy's a sympathetic character, and while there's certainly nothing wrong with not taking sides it ends up making the performance itself feel like it's riding the fence. She's married to Snidely Whiplash, ''er I mean Tom (Joel Edgerton), an old money wealthy man who says he loves her but doesn't show it very well.
There will be some, perhaps many, who consider DiCaprio's performance spot on. In fact, I sense that part of what bothers me with his performance is actually an artistic choice made by DiCaprio in an effort to drive home the shallow, performance world in which Gatsby lived. DiCaprio's look and his language, especially that godawfully tiresome "Ol' Sport," is clearly the actor's way of capturing Gatsby's attempt at painting himself into a world in which he clearly doesn't belong. For me, it felt forced and it lacked the complexity that I'd ultimately expect from Gatsby. I suppose I want my J. Gatsby to play off like a smoother and sexier Freddie Quell, the character brought so beautifully to life by Joaquin Phoenix in last year's The Master.
Rather than feeling like a living and breathing person, DiCaprio's Gatsby feels like a character and DiCaprio simply an actor.
Gatsby deserves better and DiCaprio's not the actor to pull it off.
Mulligan, easily one of the best of the up-and-coming actresses, unfortunately experiences the same problems here though her character is easily the film's most appealing. Luhrmann makes the decision to bookend the film with an absurd set-up involving Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and a sanitarium, where it would appear Nick has ended up following his escapades with Gatsby. Maguire only skims the surface of what we should be seeing here, capturing the bewilderment just fine but not the gravity of Carraway. When he is called upon to be bewildered, Maguire gives a compelling and captivating performance. Unfortunately, this is nearly a 2 1/2 hour film and Carraway's bewilderment wears thin and the rest of his performance simply doesn't convince.
The film's early scenes are perhaps its most entertaining, with Gatsby himself still a mystery and Luhrmann's flourishes of color and rhythm bouncing all over the screen. These scenes seemed to be saying something, even if the film's music lacks the emotional heft and force that usually accompanies a Luhrmann film. However, once the focus turns towards facilitating the Gatsby/Daisy rendezvous it feels as if Luhrmann isn't quite sure how to pull off the needed emotions without sacrificing his precious style. As a result, everything feels consistently like it's missing a beat and I ended up remarking to a fellow critic that it had been some time since I'd seen so many emotions flying across the screen and yet felt absolutely nothing.
The Great Gatsby
isn't a horrible film, though I'll confess that this review has a far more negative tone than I'd originally intended to write. I'd also left the theater thinking to myself "That was a complete waste of time" only to find myself a couple days later still thinking about the film and the dialogue and the visuals and the music.
The film, which is still vastly superior to the 1974 Robert Redford version, is emotionally adrift yet visually arresting.
Indeed, The Great Gatsby
is a lot like that Indianapolis Colts cheerleader I dated for awhile a few years back.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic