You can certainly say one thing about Australian writer/director Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge, Australia); he gives great parties. This dazzlingly lush version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel borrows from the kitschy spectacles of Buzzy Berkley as it plumbs the depths of Long Island’s Prohibition-era mystery man who’s known for throwing extravagant bashes at the palatial home he occupies across the bay from socialites Tom and Daisy Buchanan.
Working from a script he co-wrote with long-time collaborator Craig Pearce, Luhrman creates a florid depiction of life among the oh-so-rich which combines 4 performances (1 excellent, 1 okay, 1 dull and 1 painfully inadequate) with Beverly Dunn’s set decorations and Catherine Martin’s costumes to provide audiences with a lavish spectacle eclipsing anything that ever emerged from Cecil B. DeMille’s perfervid cinematic imagination. Efforts to adequately describe the visual impact of this 2 &1/2 hour, $100 million dollar production are as exhausting as actually seeing it.
Everyone over the age of puberty knows the story of Jay Gatsby and his attempts to rescue his former sweetheart Daisy from the grip of a sterile, loveless marriage to Ivy League boor Tom Buchanan. With an endearing intensity that descends into fatal compulsion, Gatsby’s rise and fall provide a timeless object lesson in the shabbiest aspects of American culture in the Roaring Twenties. That Fitzgerald was able to inject so much clear-eyed social criticism into his ostensibly simple love story stands as one of the most widely read (and re-read) novels in 20th century American literature.
Gatsby’s story is told by Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s next-door neighbor (and cousin of Daisy) who’s urged to write an after-the-fact memoir as part of his rehabilitation at a sanatorium for alcoholics. This device, (which departs significantly from the novel) serves Luhrman’s script very well, conveying the gist of the plot amidst the director’s deliberately florid efforts to overwhelm his audience with scene after scene of optic hyperactivity.
Alas, a quartet of off-setting performances rob The Great Gatsby of the emotional impact to which its director aspires; despite Di Caprio’s brilliantly sympathetic portrait of a man pursuing an impossible romantic ideal, the miscasting of Carey Mulligan (Shame, Drive, An Education) as Daisy and Toby McGuire’s annoyingly bland Nick conspire to undercut the visually romantic aura Luhrman and his brilliant technical team worked so hard - - and so effectively - - to create. To make matters worse, Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty) fails completely as Tom, the drunken philanderer Daisy married after Gatsby left for military service in WW I. Alternately snobbish and slobish, Edgerton doesn’t deliver the essence of his character’s well-connected, upper class appeal, so Daisy’s decision to spurn Gatsby grows increasingly inexplicable. She’s a shallow, self-centered person who’d never give up her social position to tackle the much harder job of deserving the purity of Gatsby’s devotion – but she needs to be vulnerable to elicit sympathy for her predicament. Ms. Mulligan’s far too powerful a screen presence to channel Daisy’s required susceptibility, draining her relationship with Gatsby of its required tension.
Luhrman directed his first film over 30 years ago and Gatsby becomes only the 4th film since. It’s easy to see how much of the director’s time and effort when into this production – which makes it even more painful to report that the results don’t live up to his outsized ambitions.
The Verdict? See it for its visual excitement (although you don’t miss anything important by skipping the 3-D version) even as you pine for something far more substantial in dramatic content.
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