THE STORY – Midwest native Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in 1922 New York in search of the American dream. Nick, a would-be writer, moves in next-door to millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and across the bay from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). Thus, Nick becomes drawn into the captivating world of the wealthy and — as he bears witness to their illusions and deceits — pens a tale of impossible love, dreams, and tragedy.
THE CAST – Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke & Elizabeth Debicki
THE TEAM – Baz Luhrmann (Director/Writer) & Craig Pearce (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 143 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
I don’t envy Baz Luhrmann. Sure, getting to adapt one of the genuine contenders for the Great American Novel is an honor to some degree, but the pressure and expectations can’t have been easy to handle. But in converting a novel primarily renowned for its descriptive language to the screen, having such a visually minded director actually makes perfect sense. And for the most part, Luhrmann is up to the task. He pushes style to the brink and even crosses the line of excess at times, but it’s all in service of selling the film’s exploration of the gilded false happiness that the achieved American Dream brings.
“Subtle” is a dirty word in Baz Luhrmann’s world. He has a habit of employing unrelenting editing, bombastic music, and nearly laughable cinematographic techniques to shape the visual world of his stories. “The Great Gatsby” is no different. Luhrmann’s expensive and expansive filmmaking style serves as an apt visualization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose. If the film were to have been just a faithful adaptation of the novel with little flair or style, it would soften the impact of the story’s ultimate purpose and most likely would’ve been relatively unremarkable. The interwoven love stories of “The Great Gatsby” are nothing revelatory – it’s all about how it’s told. Luhrmann’s dynamic style mirrors Fitzgerald’s vivid writing in surprising and exemplary ways.
Beyond the way the film is directed, it looks and sounds absolutely marvelous. The Oscar-winning costumes and production design are extraordinary. Luhrmann’s frequent collaborator and wife Catherine Martin designed both (along with Beverley Dunn’s work as set decorator), and even though the film was nowhere near the Best Picture race, it sailed across the finish line in both of these craft categories. Seeing the work, it’s undeniable. The costumes are glamorous and imaginative; even the extras look incredible. And the locations, both fancy – like the Long Island mansions where we spend most of the film – and tragic – like Fitzgerald’s metaphorical hellscape valley of ashes – are designed in a way that brings the novel’s settings to startling, visceral life.
Add to these elements the film’s fascinating soundtrack. Luhrmann employs a similar trick here that he used in “Moulin Rouge!” Modern pop and hip-hop songs have been transformed with a Jazz Age sound in a way that brings the audience into the headspace of the characters. Sure, some of the choices are obvious (an up-tempo, swing version of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” while Gatsby over-decorates Nick’s house for teatime with Daisy is a bit on the nose), but overall the effect works. The star of the soundtrack, however, is a new song written for the film. Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is a sumptuous, soaring ballad that distills the film’s feeling into three minutes and 55 seconds. The repeated refrain of “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” echoes the insecurities of the characters who are dancing toward oblivion, desperate to repeat the past and ignore the terrifying future. It’s a masterpiece of film songwriting, and its snub at the Oscars remains baffling, dispiriting, and infuriating.
To bring Fitzgerald’s legendary characters to life, Luhrmann assembles an exemplary cast. Carey Mulligan is captivating and appropriately melancholy as Daisy. Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is a genius bit of casting, effectively selling both the confidence and the insecurities of the wealthy playboy. It’s hard not to buy him as a charming millionaire with an uneasy storm raging inside. Elizabeth Debicki is a revelation as Jordan Baker in only her second feature film role. Even surrounded by veteran Hollywood mainstays and established actors, she’s an assured and powerful presence. The only uncertain member of the cast is Tobey Maguire as the narrator and central character, Nick Carraway. He’s given a hefty amount of voiceover dialogue wherein he seemingly reads directly from some of the novel’s more famous passages under the guise of his character writing them in real-time, and he sometimes seems a bit too in awe of the literary genius that he supposedly has. Unfortunately, he also isn’t exactly believable as the vessel of innocence that the film requires him to be.
While I find Luhrmann to be a refreshingly ideal choice to direct this material, he sometimes can’t help himself when it comes to his trademark flamboyant decisions. The erratic camera has a habit of simply moving too fast, causing distraction rather than excitement. I couldn’t keep track of the number of times we flew across the bay from Gatsby’s to Daisy’s and vice versa. Conversely, while he is a master at exuberance and excess, he sometimes has trouble shooting the parts of the film that require two actors to have a simple yet important conversation. He almost seems bored by these types of scenes, as if they are in the way of the more thrilling, dynamic set pieces that will follow shortly. They feel like roadblocks.
For anyone who pictured what Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” might look like before seeing the film, the result basically lives up to what one might imagine it would be like. Over-the-top and gaudy, it still manages to effectively tell the timeless story of a man who chases and fulfills the American Dream and manages to have it all brought down by the most simple and universal of human emotions: Love.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Baz Luhrmann uses his unique visual style to mirror the lyrical, evocative language of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s source material. It’s entertaining, stylish, and effective.
THE BAD – It’s undeniably a Baz Luhrmann movie, for better and for worse. Unfortunately, some of his filmmaking techniques distract rather than enlighten, and his simple dialogue scenes suffer compared to the more visually dynamic set-pieces.