I’m not convinced “The Great Gatsby” is a movie. It more resembles a calculating machine, churning out just the right emotions and just the right plot point at just the right times to keep the audience in their seats. But when this party is over, there isn’t much left to do but go home and get some shut eye.
Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated adaptation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is a dichotomous creation through and through. It’s both artistically ambitious and way too safe, exhilarating and deadly dull all in the same breath.
If you’re not familiar with the book, the story follows the narrator, writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he ruminates on his friendship with J. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) the elusive billionaire who throws the hottest, glitziest parties in 1920’s era New York while harboring deep dark secrets. There’s also Carraway’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carrey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton). The film mostly focuses on Carraway’s increasing disillusionment with the city and his increasing friendship with Gatsby, the only man he can truly trust, while also helping Daisy deal with her husband’s affair with a local woman (Isla Fisher). The latter part of the film emphasizes the romantic past that Gatsby and Daisy share.
The best and worst thing about this movie is director Baz Luhrmann. Known for directing such sumptuous films as “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet,” he once again shows a flair here for staging elaborate, exhilarating set pieces. Gatsby’s parties live up to their reputations thanks to the production design of longtime Luhrmann collaborator Katherine Martin and the film’s soundtrack, which transitions frequently between 20’s era jazz and modern hip-hop (thanks to the influence of Jay-Z, who serves as a producer). The party scenes in particular do a great job of conveying the thrill of the moment while also revealing the claustrophobic and woozy lows such booze-filled revelries often include. The filmmakers’ stylistic indulgences work for a while, but the frantic energy of the film doesn’t ever let up even during quiet scenes. I wanted to pin the camera down and tell the editors to stop cutting so I could actually enjoy the actors and lavish environments more.
Any rhythm Luhrmann creates during his major set piece moments comes to a halt whenever things get serious. The director has never had tremendous skill in conveying complex emotions unaided by song and dance, and it shows here as the dramatic moments are handled with all the grace and nuance of a sledgehammer. Audiences should never expect subtlety from a Baz Luhrmann film, but it would be nice to be able to let the excellent actors (particularly DiCaprio and Maguire) breathe a little more without having to telegraph every moment. What, for example, do we get to convey the growing tension brewing between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan? A car race. An honest-to-god, hold-onto-your-hats, pedal-to-the-metal sprint through the city streets. I couldn’t help but think of that car race home in “Meet the Parents.” Except that was actually supposed to be funny.
What surprised me the most about this adaptation is its faithfulness to the source material. Fitzgerald’s original critique of the party culture of his era thankfully shines through the translation, as does the enduring allure of J. Gatsby, perhaps the greatest character in all of literature. DiCaprio is just marvelous here, one of his best performances ever, and it is his Gatsby, with all of his flaws and fascinations, that holds the film together, much like the book. But, if anything, I never thought I would be hoping for a more ambitious adaptation. Lurhmann hits all the important notes from the book, right on the nose. While it is relatively faithful, it leaves little room for surprises or truly creative scenarios. I would have loved to see Lurhmann let his creative ambitions loose in preposterous flights of fancy that, even if they deviated drastically from the source material, would have been far more memorable.
“The Great Gatsby” is actually more of the “eh…Gatsby.” I loved the film whenever it took creative risks such as the modern soundtrack, and the acting and production values are uniformly excellent. But for every thrilling scene, there’s another that completely deflates the film’s momentum. It’s a faithful adaptation that ultimately plays it much too safe. Sure, you’ll have fun at Gatsby’s party. But don’t blame the alcohol if you don’t remember much of it the next morning.