Baz Lurhmann, the chic director of Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Romeo and Juliet (1996), drops his contemporary top-40 party style cinema into the pages of the 20th Century’s most prized literary possession, adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That’s no small feat. But Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire spar their way to the top refusing to be outdone by stunning visuals that nearly smother this interpretation; and they are seemingly non-phased by the fact they could very well ruin, or satisfy, the imaginations of those who’ve enjoyed this book. Or the Robert Redford and Mia Farrow movie version from 1974.
The Story: A mysterious wealthy man, Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), lives next door to would-be novelist and Wall Street day trader Nick Carraway (Maguire). Turns out Gatsby is secretly trying to win back Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Mulligan) whom Gatsby knows from their youth. She and Gatsby re-ignite a grand past love for one another only Daisy’s husband Tom, played by Joel Edgerton, stands in their way. It’s a love story full of hope and regret but it could also be a metaphor for capitalism and the American dream—as the promise of it was understood to be—leading into The Great Depression.
The Goods: The imagery, especially the 3D version, is good. Really good. Luhrmann has a way with moving the camera, especially toward and around narrator Nick Carraway, in a rhythm that matches Luhrmann’s decisively current top-40 soundtrack, from artists such as Will.I.Am, Beyonce and Florence + the Machine, further making the images pop and zing. At times the graphic design and computer generated effects haunt the screen especially when it comes to important story props and objects—a green boating channel light, a ring with a distinctive insignia—that have found symbolic meaning in literary studies. Even the stock footage from the ‘20’s looks like pop art. The production design of location décor, costumes and vehicles run tandem with the photography in achieving an almost blissful phantasm of a setting. There is jazz in the imagery; it is playful, stylish and graphic. And it is as redundant as what I’m saying here but more pleasurably so. Even when we leave the colorful green of Long Island’s shire for the grey ash of Queens and Brooklyn on route to Manhattan we get a sense there is a new graphic novel approach to literary traditions that suggests color and visual design are part of a sensory language which words on a page can only enhance but never do justice to.
The Flaws: But screw the fact there’s a story to be told. Nothing but voice-over and fantasized decadence occurs on screen for the first hour of the film. It’s not until cousin Nick agrees to help Gatsby and Daisy meet again--for the first time in five years--that at this very late stage in the film we finally get a sense we’re getting somewhere, and the scene is filled with nervous tension, angst and charm. It’s essentially the entertainment, with story substance, we’ve been waiting for. We can finally put childish ways behind us. Which leads me to this: it seems only young people have the kind of freedom these characters portray on screen. However this cast is not that young. I wonder how Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart would have changed this film had they or other Hollywood youth of today been cast in the principle roles. I honestly think it would be better though I’m not a fan of the Twilight films or what these actors did for those characters.
Besides, I don’t have the patience anymore for being told movie stories rather than being shown them. The filmmaker’s adage “show don’t tell” is never more true that it is here. This movie sorely needs a plot device to show-tell this story better, for the sake of the cinema-goers. It needs a telling like Memento (2000) tells its story or even the way Citizen Kane (1941) unfolds in the sense who IS Jay Gatsby, and what is Rosebud? Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby just needs a better way to reveal story rather than through narration. When we get deep into the second act, into Gatsby’s problems, the past, Luhrmann tries to keep our attention with more stylish effects—words from a type writer typing across the screen, a shooting star repetitively “slashing” across screen like a DJ scratching a record, or what could later be matching a slash across a face, and we have numerous flashbacks to Gatsby’s past accompanied by a swelling score. All of these smelling salts don’t really work. Instead it comes off as trying too hard. But damn if it doesn’t look good.
The problem is is Luhrmann spoils us with wild, lavish colors and cinematic ornamentation in the beginning of the film but fails to bring the conflict protein to replace that sugar. When two men love the same woman you can bet there’s going to be some conflict but there is none. Gatsby is set up as a protagonist, and then again so is Carraway but neither have the sort of antagonism of say a Darth Vader, or of the sort we see in Jude Law in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002). Not even Gatsby’s past is that alarming. Then all of a sudden it ends and the closing credits almost hint at the promise of something new and better than what we’ve just seen in the third act. What we get instead is just words on screen. Maybe that’s what this movie should have been…silent with just colorful intonations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words we could read on screen.
The Call: Stow the dough. It’s hard to say that considering how great The Great Gatsby looks on screen and in 3D, you can’t help but want to say “you have to see this.” But after the initial spectacle of colors and cinematic jazz floats away like the mist off Long Island you’ll be bored to tears. This movie version of The Great Gatsby further supports the theory that no movie is ever as good as its book. And so we beat on.
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. Running time is a very long 2 hours and 23 minutes.