The OK Gatsby
Flashy new take on American classic looks good but mostly misses the mark
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby extravaganza is not nearly as awful as I feared it would be. Actually, it’s the spectacularly crass merchandising of the entire enterprise that’s been awful, while the film itself is merely a lavishly upholstered mediocrity that somehow maintains a jittery sort of entertainment momentum over most of its 143-minute running time. (It actually seems longer than that, and yet it never really drags.)
Some of what I like about it is just the simple fact of a visualization of the characters, the settings, and the celebrated events of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. The story and the period (the 1920s) have their own built-in magnetism.
More substantially, Luhrmann deserves some special credit for staying true to an aspect of the novel that often gets neglected: Gatsby is the title character and the story’s “star,” but the narrator of the novel—young Nick Carraway—is more truly the central character here. His account of Gatsby’s fleeting “greatness” is a catalytic phase in the story of his own rise and fall—an ostensibly innocent dreamer’s journey toward tragic maturity.
The cast is a good one—Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Carraway, Carey Mulligan as Gatsby’s dream girl, Daisy Buchanan, and Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s stolid husband, Tom. All of them look right for their respective roles, but Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle direction is so relentlessly attentive to flashy surfaces that none of the performances have much depth.
The most conspicuous passion in the production is directed toward Gatsby’s mansion. Set designer Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife and co-producer) has dreamed up a spectacularly metamorphic interior arena for the party scenes therein. The expanding and contracting phantasmagoria of those scenes goes way beyond anything in the novel, and that says a lot about this production’s carnivalesque priorities.
All in all, Luhrmann’s approach to the story seems weirdly divided against itself. The Carraway-centric structure bespeaks fidelity to the Fitzgerald original, but the lavish production values run counter to the wary perspectives (of the novel and the script) on the gaudy materialism of Gatsby and the so-called “Roaring Twenties.”
The Luhrmann-ized Gatsby makes plenty of eye-catching moves, but for all its apparent good intentions, artistically and otherwise, it never really achieves any dramatic depth. When Carraway waxes poetic about the exceptional qualities in Gatsby’s smile, Luhrmann gives us a close-up of DiCaprio smiling in routine, non-committal fashion. Typically, the film illustrates an important moment from the novel, taking note of it, but hardly bothering about the feelings and issues that go with it.