Review: 'The Great Gatsby' Just Burns Too Bright for Its Own Good
by Jeremy Kirk
May 10, 2013
On paper, Baz Luhrmann seems the perfect fit for bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' to modern life. The man who put Romeo + Juliet in a gritty LA and burned Paris bright with neon in Moulin Rouge would have an edge up on the gaudy, glitzy gatherings of Mr. Jay Gatsby. To an extent, what's on paper works. Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby is often too literal for its own good, choosing narration and Fitzgerald's text as exposition over something subtler. Luhrmann isn't a subtle man, and where his film suffers in adapting the story, it tries desperately to make up for in glamorous execution.
That same paper has Leonardo DiCaprio as the perfect choice for Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire whose extravagant, 1920's mansion and wild, weekend parties find themselves next door to Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Carraway is, on top of being our aforementioned narrator, a lowly bondsman renting a home in the fictional Long Island town of West Egg, spending his relaxation time with second cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her "old money" wealthy husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). Secretive and decadent lifestyles abound, and once Gatsby gets a hold of Carraway, the two strike up a friendship that brings Gatsby's past, and his ambitious plans for the future, to sparkling light. That light is green, evidently, and extremely bright in Luhrmann's hands.
The pomp and circumstance, confetti and fireworks, blaring music and dancing feet all play perfectly in line with Luhrmann's style, a director drenching with operatic flair. The hand of the ridiculous is always at work in his films, and the worlds he ends up creating are of the "take it or be prepared to hate it" variety, all of which works splendidly with the design and style of The Great Gatsby's New York. The lights of Time Square burn just as brightly as those found in Moulin Rouge's Paris, but the comparisons don't even come close to stopping there. From Carraway's narration popping in now and again just to make sure we're all caught up to the inevitability of the story's tragedy, much of what we see in The Great Gatsby can't help but being vividly familiar. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg billboard gets the same treatment as a certain windmill, too.
Much of what we feel is familiar, as well. Though Luhrmann's production design of every mansion, every New York locale, every roaring 20's-era bash is flawless, it all feels like that shimmering mirage. There is very little soul in Luhrmann and Craig Pearce's screenplay, more a copy-and-paste job from Fitzgerald's original material than any real adaptation. An interpretation would have been welcomed, but the flat, almost stale, substance playing about beneath Luhrmann's style has very little to offer. The most interesting swerve the film maker places on the whole affair is in his soundtrack, a collection of modern hip hop and pop beats curiously put together by Jay Z. The story's theme of accomplishment and achieving one's goals is found no more exercised than in the man who put music to it all.
Every player in Luhrmann's cast rips into their respective part, chewing on hammy dialogue with a side of sour pretension. DiCaprio particularly seems to enjoy every chance his Gatsby gets to call someone "old sport." When Gatsby's less playful, more prone to explosion side comes out, DiCaprio follows effortlessly. Maguire's aw-shucks attitude seems perfectly in tune with Carraway's required naivety. Mulligan seems dazed here, a suitable choice for Daisy, a woman who once loved but now spends her time in a half-drunken haze. Edgerton plays old-money blowhard with the perfect level of bombast. Behind that exceptional mustache, you only expect to find hot air. As with his other films, Australia included, Luhrmann culls together and guides a dazzling cast that ends up radiating an already brilliantly lit movie.
It's enough radiance to blind you from wondering why it all exists. With the director's spectacular vision, and a little CGI, the golden ballrooms and champagne-fueled shindigs of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby were surely a walk in the finely-mowed park. Just as gold never fades, a good story never gets old. Maybe that's why Luhrmann chose to stick so closely to Fitzgerald's text, to even display said text on screen a time or two just in case we forgot it was based on something important. In the long line of great works of art, Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' will always be remembered. Luhrmann's recreation, beautiful and blazing as it is, is destined to burn out awfully fast.
Jeremy's Rating: 6 out of 10