Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton
Owl Eyes: You won’t find him. This house and everything in it is an elaborate disguise. Gatsby doesn’t exist.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is generally considered by authorities on the subject to be one of the greatest American novels ever written, if not the greatest, and a cautionary tale on the more selfish aspects of the American dream. Before this year, it had been adapted for the screen four times, the most famous of which was made in 1974, directed by Jack Clayton, and starring Robert Redford as the title character, Jay Gatsby, a wealthy socialite and mystery to most who meet him. As effective and timeless as the novel is, the film versions have never resonated with that same weight or properly captured the souls of these seemingly soulless characters. Now, yet another attempt has been made to tame this beast of a work, by one of today’s most vivid filmmakers, Baz Luhrmann, and with it, yet another filmmaker fails to capture what actually makes Gatsby great.
In many ways, Luhrmann would seem like the perfect choice to bring THE GREAT GATSBY back to life. The first half of the novel is all glamour and excess and parties that seem to go on for days at a time. If anyone knows how to party on screen, it’s Luhrmann, whose previous films, like MOULIN ROUGE and ROMEO+JULIET, showcased some of the most chaotic and crafty festivities I’ve ever seen. In those examples though, he was still able to cut through the pandemonium to get to the crux of the characters. In his latest, and most expensive, extravaganza, he doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with what’s hiding underneath all the facade. In fact, at times, the elaborate guise he constructs feels forced and, worse yet, often stinks of overcompensation for a glaring lack of depth. Luhrmann has never been one for subtlety but his work has never felt so far removed from reality either. And when you’re adapting a classic of this magnitude, missing the mark to this degree can almost be misconstrued as an insult to its legacy.
Luhrmann also seemed a good fit because of his ability to bridge the gap between the potentially dated and the contemporary. THE GREAT GATSBY is a commentary on class division and the social injustices suffered at the hands of the disenfranchised to allow for the excessive self-indulgence of the well to do. Given the current class issues faced by many Americans, I would have expected these comparisons to be glaringly obvious, but Luhrmann is too busy throwing money at the problem in hopes we don’t notice (which is ironic really, but not all that engaging). There are certainly elements of THE GREAT GATSBY that work, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s charismatic portrayal of the complex title character to the thrilling, and often thumping, soundtrack. Carey Mulligan is magnificent as Gatsby’s love interest; Joel Edgerton is appropriately creepy as her philandering husband; and Tobey Maguire is, well, competent at least, as the film’s narrator. The cast’s grasp of the subject matter elevates the occasional scene past its visual pomp, but ultimately cannot sustain the bumpy ride. In some ways, I suppose highlighting how the parties were meant to mask the emptiness of the era, is actually authentic to Fitzgerald’s message but, while hollowness on the page can often be haunting, on screen, it is often just hollow.