Baz Luhrmann's caffeinated interpretation of “The Great Gatsby” is sumptuous to behold – conspicuous consumption come to life. It leaves you feeling slightly depressed. Gatsby, a man whose fortune is based on smoke and mirrors, is not a heroic figure, yet Luhrmann celebrates artifice at the cost of substance. Like Gatsby's life, the movie is a regular Belasco.
If you read the book in high school, you know that last line isn't a compliment. And you also know the plot, the bones of which remain the same. Set in 1922, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is the working class go-between for two estranged lovers: his neighbor, enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Nick's cousin, flapper ingénue Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Gatsby is part of the new money millionaires in West Egg, Long Island, while Daisy is nestled in the inherited wealth of East Egg.
A body of water is not the only thing separating them. Years have passed since Daisy and Gatsby's last rendezvous, when he was a poor doughboy and she was a Kentucky belle. She's now fully entrenched in her life with Tom (Joel Edgerton), a polo-playing brute who regularly cheats on her. Gatsby, who has gotten everything he felt was owed him, doesn't realize that you can't acquire the past. The debt is too high.
“The Great Gatsby” is still a staple of school reading lists because those themes hold true today. Society operates on the fallacy that our happiness can be purchased; we embrace the past with each remake and nostalgia-tinged comeback. Luhrmann supports the packaging behind this thought, but not the content. Spectacle and cartoonish booziness are the movie when it should be a complement. The sizzle isn't the steak.
Luhrmann uses the book's setting to practice his jazzy, amped-up technique instead of commenting on contemporary life or adding to our appreciation of what we already know. (Either way, having Jay-Z songs pepper the soundtrack does not count.) The director captures Gatsby's raucous parties and the luxuriousness of being indescribably rich – I love how Tom and Daisy's butlers act in synch, and the Lucky Charms rainbow of Gatsby's shirts that shower Daisy – but he rarely expands upon the images he presents.
Most of Luhrmann's shots rarely do more than look good. Anyone can do that, even Michael Bay. Great filmmakers use scenes as dialogue: “Up” told the history of a marriage in four heart-breaking minutes; the pain of Travis Bickle's phone call to Betsy in “Taxi Driver” is expressed by the camera moving away from this poor, hurt soul. That kind of artistic subtlety is not Luhrmann's forte, so we are told every emotion, courtesy of Nick's narration. What's Luhrmann's interpretation of the material? I have no idea, but everything sure looks glittery.
Some things shatter the facade. DiCaprio has never looked more like a movie star while displaying the vulnerability that keeps him around. Luhrmann shoots Mulligan in soft, angelic colors, so we learn what Gatsby doesn't: she's impossible to grasp. Mulligan, a first-rate actress, captures Daisy's fragility. Daisy and Gatsby are fighting a hopeless war against reality and priorities. It would have been nice if Luhrmann were an ally.
Rating: W W
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