‘The Great Gatsby’ – Even Baz Luhrmann Can’t Bring Fitzgerald’s Classic Novel to Life

I once had a teacher in college who told me filmmakers keep making the same movie over again and again without even realizing it, and Baz Luhrmann is a prime example of this. His “Romeo & Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” dealt with characters looking back at a past they can never return to and of love affairs which ended tragically. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” is not any different from those two films, and it is filled with extravagant scenes that dazzle us with amazing choreography and beautiful images. But while it is a beautiful movie to look at, this film lacks the heart and soul I usually expect Luhrmann’s works to have in an infinite degree.

This “Gatsby” adaptation starts with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a writer and bond broker, telling us about his time in New York during the 1920s (better known in the history books as the “Roaring 20s”). Right there I knew the movie was in trouble as Luhrmann started “Moulin Rouge” off with Ewan McGregor reflecting on an exhilarating past and a great love which has long since passed him by, and Maguire is a very similar character in that respect. From there, it is clear that this movie will not have a happy ending, and the characters we see enjoying themselves will soon experience a suffering which will be endless. We’re not even five minutes into this cinematic adaptation, and already I can tell this will be familiar territory for Luhrmann, way too familiar.

The 1920s were a time of great wealth and endless partying which came to a crashing halt the following decade when the stock market crashed and Americans found themselves out of a job (sound familiar?). Carraway finds himself caught up in all the hoopla which came with those times, and it’s at an especially over the top party where he meets Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man as rich as he is mysterious. From there they become inseparable friends as Gatsby shows Carraway around town and introduces him to the most influential people one could ever hope to meet. But it’s when Gatsby takes a strong interest in Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), that things start changing and not for the better. It turns out Gatsby knew Daisy in the past, and now Gatsby will do everything in his power to win Daisy back from her suspicious husband, polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

“The Great Gatsby” has the same problem Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet” had during its first half; it thrust a lot of style and flash cuts at us at an alarming rate to where I was desperate for things to slow down so I could breathe and actually everything in on a deeper level. Now Luhrmann did slow things down in “Romeo & Juliet” to where we connected emotionally with the story and its characters, and he successfully reinvigorated one of William Shakespeare’s most overdone plays to where it felt fresh and exciting again. But this time he gets so caught up in the spectacle he is putting up for us all to see to where it became impossible for me to connect with anything or anybody here. The sensory overload I got in his previous films was exhilarating, but here everything feels so exhausting and artificial to where it doesn’t matter if you watch this film in 2D or 3D (I watched it in 2D because I refused to spend the extra money). The characters may be starving for emotion, but it’s the audience that needs it even more.

Whether or not you have read Fitzgerald’s classic novel, it’s easy to see the direction this movie was going to take. As a result, I found myself getting very bored and impatient as I knew Gatsby would eventually stumble over his own ambitions, and I just wanted see him get his ass kicked sooner rather than later. Heck, I even got up and went to the bathroom at one point, and that should you give you an idea of how frustrating this movie was for me. I was able to sit through “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” despite needing to pee really bad, but this one I could not hold it in. Yes, that’s too much information for you readers, but anyway…

On the upside, the actors acquit themselves very nicely. You can’t really go wrong with DiCaprio, and he does make quite the dashing Gatsby, but there should be a drinking game based on how many times he calls people “old sport” throughout, and I seriously got sick of him saying that. His good friend Tobey Maguire has his back as Nick Carraway, and he does a lovely job of reading Fitzgerald’s words to where I’d like to hear him do a reading of the novel as he brings us a lot closer to the author’s dialogue than Luhrmann does.

Carey Mulligan, however, is seriously miscast as Daisy Buchanan. She still gets to do her whole woefully vulnerable lady act which she played to perfection in “An Education,” but Mulligan is not able to nail the other complexities this role has to offer. Yes, she is a lovely presence to watch in this or in any other movie, but this is not enough to save her performance here.

Clearly a tremendous amount of effort was put forth by the cast and crew on “The Great Gatsby,” but it doesn’t change the fact that the movie is a profound disappointment. Fitzgerald’s novel has been adapted several times with limited success, and many say it is an exceedingly hard book to translate to the silver screen. Luhrmann looked like he was the man who could do it justice, but he doesn’t come close. What a shame. We can always count on him to give us spectacle as well as substance, but this movie is all spectacle and not enough substance.

* ½ out of * * * *

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