I am pretty unfamiliar with THE GREAT GATSBY. I don’t really know the story at all. I never read it in High School, and I’ve never seen any of the other screen adaptations. In fact, my only exposure to the story when I was young was hearing speed talker John Moschitta do a 60-second version of the story in the 80’s. But, I am familiar with director Baz Luhrmann. I still haven’t seen his debut film, STRICTLY BALLROOM, but I loved his version of ROMEO + JULIET when it first came out in 1996. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. MOULIN ROUGE gets better every time I watch it and is kind of a masterpiece. unfortunately, I was majorly let down with his last film, AUSTRALIA. It was an over ambitious mess that couldn’t figure out what story it wanted to tell. Still, his unique style is always interesting to experience , and I was definitely curious to see what he was going to do with GATSBY (which was originally supposed to open last Christmas).
The movie begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a sanitarium talking to a doctor about the story we’re about to see. This is the story: Nick moves to upstate New York to be close to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Life seems pretty good, but gets a little awkward when Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair with a woman named Myrtle (Isla Fisher). But now that Tom is attending parties, he becomes an alcoholic. But, the movie isn’t really interested in that. Instead, the focus turns on Nick’s mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby played by Leonardo DiCaprio (who makes his first appearance 29 minutes into the picture). Gatsby throws gigantic, wild parties in his luxurious mansion, but he’s generally unhappy. Why? Well….. he has an agenda. You see, years ago, he and Daisy were a couple. Then, he was sent to war. When he came back, he was penniless and promised Daisy that he would find a way to make money so they could marry in a letter. Daisy didn’t wait and ended up getting married to Tom, who’s a rich S.O.B. Gatsby befriends Nick in order to get close to Daisy. Once she sees him again, things get out of control. Of course, passions are high, but she’s torn if she should leave her husband for Gatsby or not.
I’m sure this story was fresh when it was first written, but it’s about as stale as dried bread. However, with Baz directing, the movie is anything but stale. He injects the story with much-needed energy and color. Visually, it’s absolutely stunning. It takes place in 1920’s New York, but I sort of loved that this doesn’t look like this takes place in the real world. It takes place in its own fantasy realm (much like MOULIN ROUGE did). There’s a lot of CGI effects to make up this time period, especially downtown New York, but it gives it an intriguing whimsical quality. And just like his other films, Baz doesn’t use music from the time period, but instead uses a hip modern soundtrack (this time produced by hip-hop artist Jay-Z). It’s almost worth seeing just for the sheer spectacle of this movie alone……………ALMOST.
Unfortunately, its ambitious style overpowers the source material, instead of complimenting it. In MOULIN ROUGE, the style was just as in-your-face, but there was an emotional connection to its characters I thought. Here, I felt no connection whatsoever. I didn’t really care about anyone, and that’s a big problem. It seemed like Baz was so concerned about creating an imaginative and unique visual world, that he completely forgot that the story had actual characters in it. So instead, the movie is a bit of a mess. I guess it’s a sort of watchable mess, but it’s STILL a mess regardless.
The actors are all over the map here, as they fire on all cylinders as if trying to compete with the bombastic directorial style of Baz. Tobey Maguire seems to be typecast as that “Golly-Gee-Willaker” character, always wide-eyed and learning about the world. He’s fine I guess. I just didn’t like that his character starts off as the lead, and then when the plot decides he’s not necessary anymore, it just pushes him to the sidelines as he is reduced to a mere observer for the final hour. Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine actor, and he’s mostly solid here. He certainly has a powerful presence, but I found the character to be ultimately pathetic, which could’ve been the point I suppose. Carey Mulligan surely is talented, but I found her character pretty unlikable, which again, might have been the point. Joel Edgerton is in full on “Baz Luhrmann” villain mode (like Richard Roxburgh in MOULIN ROUGE and David Winham in AUSTRALIA). He’s a total cartoon character, which sort of fits the style of the rest of the film, but still one of the main reasons that disconnects the viewer from the story. Ilsa Fisher is pretty much wasted as Myrtle, not really having anything to do other than be an important plot device. The one shining star in the movie is Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan, a maybe, sort of love interest for Nick? But not really. She really doesn’t have a character, but she definitely leaves an impression with her lively performance. And the talented Jason Clarke is merely reduced to a cliché as Myrtle’s wife.
Baz is certainly a visionary filmmaker. But his style comes back to bite him in the ass on this one. I knew that he was going to go crazy with his direction here, but it ends up swallowing the whole production. It overtakes the story. And that’s something that MOULIN ROUGE didn’t do. The style complimented the story. Here, it seems like it’s fighting the story. It all seems so forced. As if Baz was trying really hard to emulate his own style. But he seemed to forget that he IS Baz so he doesn’t need to try hard at all. It should all come naturally, but instead it’s all executed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I also found the editing to be all over the map. I know Baz usually cuts his films rapidly, but there seemed to be no sense of rhythm to the editing here. It’s sensory overload. The soundtrack is also a mixed bag. I loved the music in MOULIN ROUGE, but there was just a bit too much modern hip-hop for me. I didn’t feel like it really worked for this.
This may sound like I outright hated the film, I didn’t. It was always interesting to watch. Which goes to show that sometimes when a visionary filmmaker misses the boat, it can be a fascinating failure. And that’s what this is: a fascinating failure. It’s full of life, pizzazz, crazy energy, bright colors, loud music, manic performances and spectacular art direction. But sadly, every single technical aspect engulfs the entire story. I know I’ll probably see this again (especially since I promised my daughter I’d take her this weekend), and it’s not going to be torture. I could gaze at this movie over and over again. Too bad I just can’t turn the sound down. If you’re a fan of Baz’s previous work, then you should give it a try, but just don’t expect to find an entirely cohesive movie. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.
– Running time: 2hrs 21min.