The Great Gatsby.
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, The Great Gatsby looks like a dazzling film. The trailers were astounding, in a Baz Luhrmann kind of way. After Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, both which I really enjoyed, I was excited to see what he could bring to the epitome of the All-American novel. So did it live up to those expectations?
Our narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves into New York in the 1920s and hears mysterious rumors about his neighbor, the elusive Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). We find out that Gatsby has a past involving Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), though she’s now married to the biggest jerk ever (Joel Edgerton). The movie is directed by Baz Luhrmann.
This movie belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. What can’t this guy do? He plays the complexity of Gatsby to a tee. One moment, you see that DiCaprio charm and smile, as he entertains thousands of people, but then the next, you see his self-esteem shatter as Daisy enters the picture and he becomes a helpless and hopeless shell. This entire movie is about illusion and he perfectly portrays a man struggling to keep up this illusion of success.
The other standout in the main cast is Joel Edgerton, who takes a turn as the horrific Tom Buchanan, who is a little more vilified than I remember the novel portraying him, but it works perfectly. This guy is definitely on the radars now and his range is impressive (especially see Warrior, my review here). You hate him and you hate that he somehow manages to bring out the worst in Gatsby, who’s impossible not to like.
Carey Mulligan is fine, though a little over the top (probably on Luhrmann’s orders) and Tobey Maguire is okay, though the part of Nick Carraway is mostly just an observer, so there’s no real emotion or meat to what Nick goes through. I blame F. Scott Fitzgerald for that. Maguire did what he could with the role.
Most people are going to obviously compare this to Moulin Rouge, as it looks stylistically very similar. It feels like Luhrmann was trying to tap into that magic vein again and it some moments, the picture he paints is gorgeous. Sweeping skylines and wild romps through the city. So, yes, occasionally he succeeds. There are gorgeous moments.
And musically, there are a few occasional moments of genius as well, though more mistakes than successes in my opinion. So here we go…
What doesn’t work?
This feels like a parody of a Baz Luhrmann film. For every amazing skyline, there are horrible CGI adventures in a car or obvious greenscreens that detract from your experience. For every amazing mansion, there’s a horrible and obvious computer-generated mansion that looks out of place. He needed to reel this one back in.
See… the story is about the people. This movie succeeds most when there is no music. It succeeds when Leo and Joel go back and forth and it’s raw emotion. It works best when Carey and Leo share a glance and there is legitimate sparks flying and you feel that lurch in your stomach. Success. But the movie falters when it opens up to these huge group scenes and dance numbers and it feels jarring. The first half of the movie was painful almost. Horrible visuals mashed up with awkward Jay Z songs. The music was inconsistent. Luhrmann is known for incorporating covers of significant songs, which he does here, but with Jay Z, he straight up includes 3 or 4 tracks unaltered. It was a weird choice. And then there were moments where a traditional orchestral score would sweep in and it literally confused me. Thematically, it was all over the place.
If Baz Luhrmann could’ve kept his stylistic urges in check, he might’ve been able to bring out the best in the huge amount of talent he gathered. The audience was chuckling at moments that weren’t funny and bobbing their heads to a song that was meant to draw out emotion. His style, while gorgeous at times, did the story a disservice.
So… the first half was awkward, jarring, and inconsistent. After Mulligan and DiCaprio share the screen together, the movie starts to find its voice and manages to mostly succeed in despite of its director’s urges.
There’s a lot going on here and if you can sludge through director Baz Luhrmann’s wild sweeping horrible CGI landscapes and awkward jarring party scenes, you’ll find some amazing moments between Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, and Carey Mulligan. Amazing talent and they find a way to reach you, while the director constantly tries to distract you from it. It’s an inconsistent film but some definite redeeming qualities that I can’t help but recommend.