Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan
Rated: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
Get a handful of people in a room who have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and you’re likely to find at least a few who love it and at least a few who hate it. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the great American novel is likely to provoke similar reactions. Both have to walk the fine line between critiquing the excesses of the Jazz Age and simply being part of them.
The film is narrated by Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a young man in some sort of psychiatric institution. His doctor suggests that he write as a way of soothing himself and purging some of the experiences that are eating at him. Out comes the tale of one Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), mysterious millionaire and thrower of the most spectacular parties Luhrmann’s creativity can bring us. Nick moved in next door for the summer, and found himself swept up into the mystery of his wealthy neighbor, who has some sort of history with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan).
That tragedy ensues is no surprise; nearly every moment of the film seems to teeter on the edge of falling into either chaos (for the characters) or self-parody (of itself). Different people will interpret the story different ways: is it a tale of doomed love? A portrait of multiple people’s self-delusion (my own take)? An unflinching portrait of the Jazz Age and cautionary tale about the American Dream? That it can be read in many ways is part of what makes the book such a vital part of the canon of American literature. The film, unfortunately, never quite commits to any interpretation and fails to really follow through on any of them. Each one is undercut somehow.
It’s a pity, really. I’ve been a fan of Luhrmann’s since “Strictly Ballroom” came out back in the early 90s, and “The Great Gatsby” feels like he’s lost his way. There’s no heart here, the film has no soul — and if it were a critique of the Jazz Age, that would be fine, but there’s too much enthusiasm in the spectacle for that interpretation to hold up. It’s as if all the attention went to the parties, and none went to the people. That the man who made an inspiring, passionate love story masquerading as a silly little film about competitive ballroom dancing made this piece of empty glitz is more than a little disappointing.
All the pieces are there to make a great film. Leonardo DiCaprio seems born to play Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire excels at the necessary naivete and optimism, Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is appropriately beautiful and vapid, and Joel Edgerton seems born to play the nasty, brutish, Old Money she married. The production quality is almost uniformly magnificent, the pacing is solid, and Luhrmann’s fondness for anachronistic remixes of modern music mostly works just fine. But there’s nothing underneath, it doesn’t gel. Part of the problem is that the voice-over narration from Maguire is frequently unnecessary, to the point that it will describe something metaphorical which is then literally acted out. It’s as if Luhrmann was so in love with the text of the book that he couldn’t tell when not to use it.
Whether or not any single person will like “The Great Gatsby” is hard to say. It probably depends on what you’re looking for. If you just want some amazing eye candy, huge spectacles and gorgeous shots, don’t miss it. But if you have strong opinions about the book or want anything in the lines of character heart or development, stay far away.