Five years since Baz Luhrmann‘s first certifiable flop, Australia, the flamboyant director returns for unarguably his most ambitious and anticipated effort yet, a pulse-pounding take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s esteemed novel, The Great Gatsby (most famously adapted previously with Robert Redford in the starring role). Though this attempt boasts all of the coveted Luhrmann hallmarks, it misses the mark precisely because it indulges those very flourishes in the most sickly, overblown fashion possible.
When we first meet Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), he’s a crestfallen alcoholic, clearly shaken by events he’s experienced. To recount his story, Carraway takes us back to his first encounters with enigmatic neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws luxurious parties while mystique continues to grow surrounding both his identity and his sizable wealth. Meanwhile, Carraway’s decision to re-introduce Gatsby to a former flame, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) foreshadows dangerous consequences for all involved.
It would be easy to call Luhrmann’s film gorgeously mounted, though on closer inspection this would appear to be a mistake. While the crafts services – namely cinematography, production and costume design – are indisputably top notch, there’s a cloying tackiness attached to the director’s excessive use of visual effects, bolstered by the most perfunctory of 3D presentations. Indeed, if there’s any word to best describe 2013’s The Great Gatsby, it has to be “excessive.”
Festooning the screen with jarring cross-fades and overt business, it’s difficult to make much head or tail of the narrative through-line, or indeed, why we’re supposed to much care about Jay and Daisy’s lingering romance, or really much else throughout. While Luhrmann might be trying to convince us that he’s crafted a vibrant up-scaling of the classic movie schematic, what becomes more clear is the emotional emptiness of the outing entire. Thesps spout their lines with the requisite soul – specifically the leads – though the hollow shell they’re contained within makes it all seem and feel for nothing.
Indeed, DiCaprio – who previously bumped his profile by starring in the director’s Romeo and Juliet – is an inspired choice for the titular role, though sadly again misses out on an opportunity for industry recognition due to a clumsy director’s whims. Mulligan, meanwhile, continues to demonstrate her mastery of a convincing American accent, and is probably the closest thing the film has – at least in terms of appearances – to a bonafide movie starlet, though she’s occasionally let down by some horrendously risible dialogue.
In many ways the stand-out, then, is Maguire, taking the more noble and unassuming role of the beguiled everyman who guides us through the story. The Spider-Man star might not look like he’s aged a day since he first played Peter Parker, but he’s a pleasant counter-balance to the bombastic aesthetic of the film, and some of its more outrageous performers – namely Joel Edgerton, who both acts and looks ridiculous throughout.
Melodrama is a word that can be used to applaud or deride; here it is the latter, precisely because Luhrmann doesn’t foreground the finer beats of the novel in a way that overcomes his own perverse intent. What is clearly supposed to be hauntingly emotive by film’s end will instead leave audiences coolly detached, even apathetic. The director may have pumped a little over $100m into bringing Fitzgerald’s opus to life – and to be fair, the film looks like it cost a fair bit more than that – but somewhere along the way, the essence has been lost, and therefore the entire point of the outing in the first place.
Few are going to leave Gatsby having seen anything other than what they expected; the sweeping camera dollies, campy costumes and outrageous uses of music (boasting an ill-fitting contribution from Jay-Z) all appear in abundance. For some, this will be a guilty pleasure, and to others, a 142-minute missed opportunity and woeful waste of talent. This is another Baz Luhrmann film that fails to engage either the heart or the mind.
The Upside: Luhrmann’s film may very well score itself Academy Award nominations for Production Design and Costume Design. Performances – in spite of the material – are generally solid.
The Downside: Invasive visual effects and Luhrmann’s overblown aspirations stifle the core tenets of the novel.
On the Side: Gatsby was delayed from its original December 2012 release date, causing many to suspect that Warner had lost faith in the film’s awards potential.