Everything about The Great Gatsby is bold. It's Moulin Rouge-meets-the Jazz Age, and Baz Luhrmann is the star. The film is everything the trailer promises -- loud, frenetic and fun -- but when the style-over-substance take on the material wears thin, what's left are some subpar performances and a lot of voice-over narration.
The visuals and the soundtrack, curated by Jay Z, are the primary draws of the film, and the
experience is a blast while the narrative is in music-video mode. It would be one thing if this
was an early filmmaking foray for Luhrmann and his dramatic camera moves, but the style
comes off as a caricature of his earlier films, and will likely make a few audience members
dizzy in 3D. Meanwhile, the iconic images of the green light at the end of the dock, the Valley
of the Ashes, East Egg vs. West Egg and T.J. Eckleburg are realized like they were pulled out
of readers' heads by the Australian director.
Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pearce rely on Gatsby's unpretentious neighbor, Nick
Carraway, to voice Fitzgerald's words through the entire film, which would be fine if that
narrator was someone other than Tobey Maguire. While Maguire is a fine physical
embodiment of Nick, imagine Maguire narrating the audiobook of Gatsby on a road trip. Might I remind you this is the same actor who did a dead-on Screech (Saved By the Bell) on SNL, without much of a voice change. You get the idea.
The lack of gravitas is shared by Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. Like Gatsby's fantasy of
Daisy, it's a difficult task for any actor to live up to Fitzgerald's fictional tycoon. Of course,
directors have to select among a list of castable (read bankable) actors at the time, and
DiCaprio is one of the very few actors available today who is serviceable in the part. Maybe
Ryan Gosling could have also fit the bill, but DiCaprio was the safer choice. Luhrmann gives
his Gatsby one of the most ostentatious introductions I've ever seen in film, one that might be
worth the admission price alone. Robert Redford was a better Gatsby in a lesser movie, while
DiCaprio is a lesser Gatsby in a better iteration. DiCaprio's Gatsby, as unsubtle as the entire
film, is far more insecure than readers might expect of the character. And while Redford's
Gatsby gets flustered by Daisy, he covers it with a veneer of coolness. When he tells a story,
you're not quite sure if it's a lie; when DiCaprio lies, it's over-the-top obvious. His portrayal is
of an emotional wreck. By the time Nick tells Gatsby, "You're better than the whole lot of
them," you're not buying it.
Daisy Buchanan, played by Carey Mulligan, is a far more tragic character than the book
would have you believe. For all the voiceover narration in the film, one of the more famous
lines -- "Her voice was full of money" -- is omitted. It's not full of money here, it's full of regret.
While it's interesting to see Daisy's humanity, her shallowness is lost, as is Gatsby's chasing
of a dream girl who never really existed. The essence of Tom and Daisy is that they are rich
and ephemeral -- they smash things up and walk away unscathed. In this film, Gatsby is the
I watched the film in 3D at the Film Independent at LACMA film series, and while I'm usually
disinclined to recommend shelling out an extra $4 for most 3D films, Gatsby was made to be
seen in the format, and I would recommend catching it in theaters rather than on home video.
The Great Gatsby hits theaters May 10.