‘The Great Gatsby’
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Debick
Rated: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.
Runtime: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Bottom line: Sometimes confounding, sometimes mesmerizing
Sandwiched among the usual superheroes and science-fiction epics comes a very odd summer tentpole release, an extravagant, big budget adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby,” directed by Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”, “Romeo + Juliet”) and in 3-D.
Just like that description, the film itself provokes extreme ambivalence.
Luhrmann has a distinct style people either love or hate. I’m in the latter category, and “Gatsby” did nothing to change that. The director makes his usual mistakes and adds a few new missteps, too.
The camera often whizzes through the air with sickening rapidity, the production design causes the visual equivalent of an ice-cream headache, and the style is generally so artificial and distracting it constantly threatens to pull the viewer out of the story.
Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” captures Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties about as accurately as a certain Broadway musical captures the lives of real cats. The first act dwells on the period’s decadence, and a Gatsby party looks exactly like a night at Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
For no apparent reason other than to justify the (over)use of voice-over narration, Luhrmann also sets the novel’s story within a new frame story. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is now in a sanitarium trying to recover from the death of his faith in America and humanity. Nick chronicles his summer on West Egg as part of his therapy.
Who in the world doesn’t know this movie is based on one of the most famous novels in the English language? This device is entirely unnecessary—especially in a movie that clocks in at 143 minutes yet omits large portions of the novel.
The 3-D is unnecessary, bordering on scam. But then, it usually is. Luhrmann has already proven himself capable of immersing us in a fictional world. Charging us extra for the uncomfortable glasses just so we can see some pieces of confetti floating slightly closer to us than some other pieces of confetti does not enhance the experience.
And yet, the movie succeeds in some of the areas that matter most.
Few working filmmakers understand melodrama as well as Luhrmann, and all the yearning and angst between Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) shine through powerfully.
In his other movies, Luhrmann’s actors adjust their performances to match his hyperkinetic, flamboyant style, but for once he is wise enough to let his actors be themselves.
That’s a welcome surprise given the source material. These could have been a bunch of unsympathetic ciphers, only interesting for what they symbolize. Instead, the cast embraces the humanity of their characters.
DiCaprio is perfect. This may become yet another signature role in a career already full of them.
Joel Edgerton has been steadily building toward becoming a box-office draw as a leading man, and his spot-on performance as the hideous yet uncomfortably familiar Tom Buchanan might be the final push his career needs.
Maguire is catching criticism for his performance, but his wide-eyed, agape expression — one of only three facial expressions of which he is capable — mostly works for Nick, who spends the narrative in both novel and film observing other, far more interesting characters.
Mulligan, Isla Fisher and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki are all well-cast and do well with limited roles, too.
Thanks to these performances, Luhrmann nails some of the story’s crucial scenes, especially Jay and Daisy’s reunion and the confrontation at the Plaza Hotel.
Luhrmann knows Fitzgerald captured the soul of America, and he merely translates the novel’s most poignant passages from words into images.
But that is the ultimate key to the movie: it is best when it sticks to its source.
When the director merely embellishes Fitzgerald’s text with his unique visual sensibilities, the movie works powerfully. When it becomes “Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby,” however, it is a frustrating, alienating trifle.
The audience response to “The Great Gatsby” will likely be extremely mixed, but on balance it is worth our consideration.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.