It seems fitting that two different stories about achieving the American Dream should arrive within a few weeks from one another and under the supervision of two of the most distinct visual filmmakers on the planet. Of course, I mean Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain and now Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.
Gatsby? Oh, great.
Memories of high school English flash into you mind about as quickly as Wile E. Coyote being outsmarted by the Road Runner.
It is there in English class where we are confined to our desks, listening to teachers belabor about one of the best American novels of the 20th century. No arguments here, but it’s no To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s a discussion for another time. This piece is about the latest attempt to convert F. Scott’s book into a feature film. It’s been nearly four decades since the last effort, when Robert Redford sauntered his way through the frame as the venerable Jay Gatsby. For whatever reason Hollywood has been unable to bring the literary magic of Fitzgerald’s novel about the Roaring Twenties and have it work as a fitting adaptation.
So, as a sign of times, this new version has been given the Luhrmann Experience: Visually and aurally alluring with an added sell factor – Gatbsy as you’ve never seen it before, Now in 3-D! Like taking an old chest-of-drawers and sanding it to be restored, the film is slick in various ways but still appears unvarnished. Surprisingly, a director with such a visual acumen saps a story that is full of energy. Perhaps that’s because Luhrmann is a high-energy filmmaker, and this motion picture isn’t the type that needs to be the second coming of his celebrated musical Moulin Rouge!.
Part of the problem seems to stem from hip-hop mogul Jay Z as an executive producer and overseer of the film’s soundtrack. Seeing extravagant New Yorker parties with music from the likes of Kanye West seems out of place, but is understandable if you look at Jay Z’s approach to the material. Ignoring the fact that the first half of Shawn Carter’s entertainer alias shares a name with the titular Gatsby, you have two men who set forth to stake their claim for success by pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. It’s similar to why a copy of Brian de Palma’s Scarface can be found in the video collection of every rap star’s house on MTV Cribs.
If I were in charge of music selections I would have matched the setting of the Roaring Twenties with the music of the Opulent Eighties. Both decades included significant rises and steep declines with the stock market, and the ‘80s gave us catchy pop tunes, including some that Luhrmann used in his musical. Plus, when one considers that The Great Gatsby is about a man’s determination to get back the woman he had, then lost, ‘80s love songs seem all the more relevant. Just imagine a soundtrack with originals/covers of “Eternal Flame,” “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” “How Soon Is Now?” and “Just Can’t Get Enough,” among others.
Using a framing device of the story’s narrator Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) recounting his tale to a psychologist in a sanitarium, we flash back to 1922 New York and quickly familiarize ourselves with the main characters. Besides Nick, who is an aspiring writer but has moved to the Big Apple to sell bonds, we meet his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), and Daisy’s best friend, Jordan Baker (newcomer Elizabeth Debicki). Then we have the man of mystery, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy bachelor who lives in a grandiose mansion next to Nick’s little cottage. Arriving on the scene in similar fashion to Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, the mysterious Gatsby wastes little time in befriending Nick, playing everything close to his finely-pressed vest as not to reveal his reasons at the start. It’s nothing too shady – just a friendly tea party where he can meet Nick’s cousin Daisy. Both he and Daisy have a history together, having met five years earlier in the Midwest.
It’s probably been more than a decade since I picked up my dogeared copy of The Great Gatsby but it’s a novel that’s worth going back to every now and again. I should probably read it again for posterity sake. But it just doesn’t seem to work in movie form by Luhrmann. Even at 140 minutes the film feels incomplete, and yet it drags us along. By the end we realize that we’re not emotionally invested with any of the characters. However, looking at the film as if were a picture box, The Great Gatsby is incredibly realized, but it doesn’t feel like the real 1920s. Never mind the music miscues, there are several other tweaks that take us out of the element. It’s one thing for Luhrmann to make a fantastical musical as he did with Moulin Rouge! but the same cannot be said for this adaptation of a period drama.
Nevertheless, credit must be given to the casting department. Leonardo DiCaprio, who stuck out like a sore thumb wearing a shiny tuxedo in Titanic, has matured into a man that can definitely pass for Gatsby. Twenty to thirty minutes go by before he’s actualized on screen. Up until then, it’s only half glimpses and whispers of his past history that leave the audience tantalized. When he is unveiled, however, the illusion is gone and we are left with an actor who lacks conviction as a man of opulence, continuously using phrases like “old sport” when talking to anyone in earshot.
Tobey Maguire is an odd duck as an actor, but he fills his function as the observer to the proceedings quite well. Daisy is a character that seems beneath Carey Mulligan for some reason, having wowed critics and audiences alike in her breakout film An Education. As for Joel Edgerton who plays her husband Tom, he was my favorite character. Painted to be a villain because of his philandering ways, at least he admits that while he may stray from time to time he always comes home. Sure, he won’t win any husband of the year honors, but he’s far from the villain that Luhrmann and Co. would lead you to believe.
With The Great Gatsby being Baz Luhrmann’s second go-around when it comes to adapting classic literature – the first being William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet – it’s disappointing that his over-the-top style couldn’t translate with the source material. This is a beautiful-looking film filled with lavish parties and wardrobes that would make Oscar de la Renta jealous, but it just misses the mark when it comes to being an emotionally rich drama.
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Notable Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Debicki