great_gatsby_ver7_xlgStarring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Thompson, & Amitabh Bachchan

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann

Screenplay by: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce

The Great Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, Australia) has sadly turned into the Michael Bay of high-class dramas. If your idea of a good movie is glossy visuals cut together as if you forgot to take your ADHD medication, then you may actually enjoy The Great Gatsby. Admittedly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic novel about the decadence and excess of the Jazz Age is not an easy novel to adapt and an argument can even be made that it is unadaptable. However, the problems of Luhrmann’s gaudy and overblown The Great Gatsby extend beyond the novel’s adaptation and include the director’s signature style that would have been in this film even if the novel was easily translatable. For this film, Baz Luhrmann’s style is not appropriate and a far more subtle approach should have been used. What we get is a fake looking production that washes up ashore like a bloated dead whale of a movie that is virtually devoid of any emotion.

The Great Gatsby is one of my all-time favorite novels. It is less about the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his love affair with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) than it is about the excess and decadence of the Jazz Age and the dark side of the American Dream. Both the book and the film are narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a young Yale man who has just moved to New York City to get into the lucrative bond market on Wall Street and who finds out his next door neighbor is Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire who has insinuated himself into the upper crust of Long Island society. Nick’s cousin is Daisy, a New York socialite who is married to the wealthy and brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and who lives directly across the bay from Gatsby. After finally being invited to one of Gatsby’s lavish parties and meeting the man himself, Nick soon discovers that Gatsby met Daisy 5 years ago and the two were in love with each other before Gatsby was shipped overseas during World War I. During his absence, Daisy married Tom. Gatsby now wants to rekindle his romance with Daisy and has Nick set up a meeting where the two will reconcile. Daisy becomes reunited with Gatsby and they begin an affair that eventually leads to a whole lot of trouble. With the exception of an unnecessary narrative framing device (Nick Carraway writing his story in a sanitarium), the screenplay keeps very closely to the novel.

The best thing going for The Great Gatsby is Mr. Gatsby himself, Leonard DiCaprio and Baz Luhrmann should thank his lucky stars that he at least had the wherewithal to cast a great actor for the leading role. Comparisons may be made between DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator and his portrayal of Jay Gatsby, but I regard this role to be the greater of the two. I regard DiCaprio as easily among the best actors working today and his performance in The Great Gatsby reinforces my belief. As he successfully brings the character to life from the paper to the screen, DiCaprio is outstanding as Jay Gatsby. He mixes the boyishness we saw in Titanic with the temper he displayed in his recent Django Unchained. DiCaprio does ham it up a bit, but given the hyper-stylized tone of the film, can you blame him? My only critique of DiCaprio is that the actor seems lately drawn to roles where he plays confident and worldly men who fail to overcome a character weakness (The Aviator, Blood Diamond, Inception, J. Edgar, and to some extent Shutter Island). Gatsby is cut from that same cloth and although I very much enjoyed the performance, DiCaprio is becoming a tad too familiar in playing these roles.

The same cannot be said of Carey Mulligan (An Education). Otherwise a fine actress, Mulligan is overmatched by the part of Daisy Buchanan. In this film, Mulligan is just a stand-in who has nothing to do for most of the film except look troubled in her beautifully tailored costumes. Reportedly beating out Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson for the role, Mulligan’s performance is devoid of substance and she fails to embody her character’s beguiling charm and sophistication. The Daisy character is a complex woman who is able to bewitch Jay Gatsby. Gatsby has bought his house in Long Island for the sole reason to be near Daisy and to reunite with her. However, in the film, we cannot understand why in hell he would go for someone like her.

The rest of the supporting cast does not help either. Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan has one of the meatiest roles in the film, but he spends most of the film just sneering like some two-dimensional stereotypical villain. I kept expecting Edgerton to begin twirling his mustache to keep with his performance. I was hoping for him to get more screen time, which would have allowed his character to become a weightier adversary to Gatsby. As for Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man), he might as well not exist. He is a complete non-entity and watching him made me wonder how his career would have progressed (or not progressed) had he not starred in the Spider-Man films. Instead of being a sharp-eyed observer, like he is in the novel, Maguire comes off more like a wide-eyed, eager beaver doofus who spends the entire movie sidelined.

Obviously Baz Luhrmann has a penchant for stories about unlikely romances. Strictly Ballroom was about a ballroom dancer who partners up with a frumpy looking girl for a dance competition and they end up falling in love. Romeo & Juliet…unless you are totally cut off from civilization except for an internet connection to my blog, I won’t insult your intelligence explaining this one. Moulin Rouge is about a poor writer who falls in love with the headlining star of the Moulin Rouge and who is engaged to be married to a ruthless Duke. Australia is about a rich and proper English woman who falls in love with a rugged Australian rancher. We again have the same thing in The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby is a self-made millionaire who falls in love with a former girlfriend who is now married to another rich guy.

A good love story has to pull your heart strings so that you root for the two characters to end up together. Unfortunately, Luhrmann fails to generate any palpable chemistry between his two leads for you to care about whether or not they will end up together. Furthermore, the film’s sub-plots are briefly introduced, but they are never fleshed out. For example, Nick and Gatsby’s friendship and Tom’s romantic affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher) are barely developed. However, what makes the novel stand out is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s social commentary on the 1920’s. Although Luhrmann captures most of the novel’s story beats, he fails to dig into the cautionary theme of the book in which Fitzgerald had seen the emptiness and moral rot of the American Dream. Then again, when a director decides to present you with a 3D version of the Great American Novel, it would be a stretch for anyone to expect a deep literary adaptation.

Like it or not, Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been about the spectacle rather than the story and this is why he reminds me so much of Michael Bay. Like Bay, Baz Luhrmann emphasizes style over substance and he panders to audiences’ basest sensibilities. If The Great Gatsby was a theme-park attraction, it would look very much like this movie. Luhrmann falls into the same trap that marred the novel’s 1974 screen adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Both get too bogged down by the clothes, cars, and architecture of the time period, but this latest version commits the further sin of looking fake. Everything in this film looks and feels fake. So much CG is used to render the environments that the film borders on becoming an animated film. Its amazing that even with an enormous budget, gorgeous costumes, beautiful actors, 3D, and a virtual camera that can show anything from anywhere, the film is still a bore to sit through. On a smaller note, what the hell was the point of having key phrases from the book appear on the screen as Tobey Maguire voices them? Do we really need the director to beat us over the head that we need to pay attention to a piece of important text? Thank you, we get it.

Music also plays a critical role in the film. Once again, Luhrmann uses modern music in a period picture. Unlike Moulin Rouge, where the modern tracks were appropriate for a musical that seemed to transcend the time period it was set in, putting in Jay-Z here is ridiculous and embarrassing. When Gatsby and Nick drive by a neighboring car on the Brooklyn Bridge and the driver is blasting “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” by Jay-Z, it ruins the entire moment. It may have been the Jazz Age and rap owes some of its roots to jazz, but rap does not blend well in this time period. By the way, I am not against the use of modern music in a period film. Django Unchained also used modern music, but it was done right in that film. Here, Luhrmann’s use of Jay-Z feels more like an advertising campaign to get young people to see this film.

Baz Luhrmann’s candy-colored orgy feels like a dull Cliff Notes examination of a great American classic. The novel’s important themes are subsumed by Luhrmann’s flash and dazzle and what we ultimately end up with is a soulless film that is cold and empty.