Baz Luhrmann’s opulent 3D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic and timeless novel is infuriatingly flawed, as the director does so well to capture the excesses of the characters, but revels far too much in their shallow behaviour.
Luhrmann paints the Roaring Twenties story’s narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as a depressed alcoholic in therapy, who is encouraged to write down the fond memories of the one decent and remarkable person he met during his wild days in New York - a certain Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). When ambitious young bond salesman Nick moves into the fictional Long Island village of West Egg, he is curious about the enigmatic figure who dwells in the grand mansion next door, one who hosts the most lavish parties (you can imagine how much fun Luhrmann has with that). Nick visits his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) across the bay in East Egg, a dreamy, adorable creature married to the wealthy but brutish and bigoted Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Daisy’s ears prick up at the mention of Nick’s neighbour’s name, and Nick is dragged into the trials and tribulations of the sexual, social politics of a love story, while discovering what Gatsby himself represents about the turbulent time period.
Fitzgerald’s novel was rich with social commentary, coming from the mouths of his feckless, frequently unlikeable characters. Luhrmann isn’t so subtle with his portrayal of the American dream, lovingly filming the glamour in all its resplendence, then portraying Carraway as being excessively disgusted and ruined by the good times. When Luhrmann takes the film away from West Egg and East Egg, it’s less successful, showing the seedy flats where Tom conducts his affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher) as sumptuous and glamorous as anything on Long Island. The dazzling, fantastical tone Luhrmann has employed since Moulin Rouge is here, but when he shoots the violent, nastier side in the same gaudy, showy style as one of Gatsby’s parties it doesn’t ring true.
Maguire is miscast as Carraway; while his chemistry with DiCaprio is a benefit, and he can do the wide-eyed wonder with ease, his narration is uninteresting - he just doesn’t have the gravitas to utter Fitzgerald’s words. The normally excellent Mulligan can’t get a handle on the flighty, selfish Daisy, with the understated actress unconvincing as the self-absorbed life and soul of the room. Much better is Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s friend, the statuesque golfer Jordan Baker, who acts as the eyes and ears of the viewer. It’s a commanding performance, with Debicki holding her own while surrounded by Luhrmann’s extravagance - she portrays that innate confidence and privilege that she and her peers have. Edgerton is a great physical and mean-spirited presence, but Fisher is limited to a bawdy dame caricature.
However, the film belongs to DiCaprio, an actor born to play Gatsby - Luhrmann knows it alright, with the camera worshipping his bronzed charm. DiCaprio is on fine form as the dashing millionaire, the subject of rumours both scurrilous and legendary, capturing every complex facet of this haunted, flawed example of ambition. The only problem is the lack of chemistry between DiCaprio and Mulligan, not handy when Luhrmann wants to focus on their passion at the expense of Jordan and Myrtle’s roles.
Visually, Luhrmann absolutely milks his little touches with irritating repetition - the green harbour light outside the Buchanan mansion which represents so much, the aerial shots of dancers in Gatsby’s home, the judgmental eye of Dr. T.J.Eckleburg’s billboard in the Valley of Ashes, snowflakes and tumbling words on the screen taking advantage of the gimmicky 3D. Those famous parties of Gatsby’s aren’t even that thrilling, with the same swing-dancing lot in every scene. The soundtrack, supervised by Jay-Z, may sound electrifying on paper, but in reality it fails to make an impact, as is it used to such uninteresting effect.
This could have been the definitive Gatsby, but sadly Luhrmann’s film is ironically every bit as shallow as its characters. It’s far too literal as well, unsurprisingly at a stretched-out two hours and 23 minutes, making it disappointingly unsophisticated for all its glitz. Costumes and production design are, naturally, a dream.