“It’s like an amusement park!” a starry-eyed Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) announces without a trace of irony upon taking in the staggering excess of his first Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, turning in yet another stellar performance) party, a dizzying and defiant spectacle set in the sprawling mansion that just so happens to be right next door to Carraway’s own rented shack. For a time, Carraway is correct – Baz Luhrmann’s take on the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is very much like an amusement park, colorful and loud and fake and relentlessly entertaining. But as the madness (chemical and otherwise) of the story burns out, so too does Luhrmann’s trademark style, and the result is a most unexpected one, as the over-the-top pageantry of The Great Gatsby crumbles into an uninspired, flaccid adaptation that manages to deflate an enduring love story of even the most basic of human emotions.
Distilled down, the love story of The Great Gatsby is about a (mostly charming) criminal, liar, and fraud who is obsessed with gathering wealth and notoriety to win back the affection of a former lover who is apparently only interested in wealth and notoriety. It’s really not the sort of love story that can be deemed “satisfying” or “relatable,” but Luhrmann and his cast attempt mightily to get audiences to care about the secretive Jay Gatsby and the duplicitous Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan’s dreamy Daisy, while effective at first, is ultimately too sweet for the part). Along the way, Maguire goes for a wide-eyed everyman relatability, an utterly wasted Isla Fisher achieves overstuffed incoherence as Daisy’s husband’s mistress, and only Joel Edgerton as brute Tom Buchanan and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s essentially innocent best friend Jordan Baker achieve any kind of supporting pathos.
Luhrmann and frequent screenwriting partner Craig Pearce have built in a wraparound story to account for why Carraway is writing down his Gatsby-centric experiences, as “old sport” himself is now in a nuthouse/hospital attempting to recover from a variety of ailments (the best of which is obviously that he is, in medical parlance, “morbidly alcoholic”). Fitzgerald’s book is written from Nick’s perspective, and while that has always informed every piece of the narrative, Luhrmann’s take on the material is stuck all but hand-delivering Nick’s thoughts on his glittering neighbor and friend via hammy voiceover and florid written thoughts. The Great Gatsby immediately kicks off with Nick explaining his dear friend to his nuthouse doc, and while he does reminiscence on a time when he didn’t necessarily believe the career liar, it’s a short-lived period of questioning, and one of the most genuinely heartbreaking bits of the entire outing. Once solidified, Nick’s opinion of Gatsby never wavers – he professes him to be the most “hopeful” person he’d ever met – but Gatsby’s tremendous hope is nothing short of supreme delusion, and once Nick stops doubting his new friend’s big lies and even bigger dreams, he’s just as screwed as Gatsby.
The first half of the film is all glittery confection, every frame crammed with riotous colors and flash, especially when it comes to Gatsby’s jaw-dropping parties. To call the celebrations “over-the-top” is to not even remotely do justice to the profound spectacle that Luhrmann manages to put on screen, one that wobbles between being actually impressive and totally revolting (often within the same scene). The first half is also entirely devoid of emotion, a hollow exercise in excess and bad decisions, one that (perhaps accidentally) plunges its audience into the same addled mindset as Carraway, starstruck beyond all sense and reason.
Emotion, when it finally comes, pops up only in the smallest of moments – a look here, a sigh there, the wonderfully whimsical first introduction to Gatsby. Luhrmann holds back until the former lovers are finally reunited in a sequence that artfully blends the beauty of the film with genuine feeling and even trace amounts of humor and, suddenly, Luhrmann’s film appears to have a beating heart. But The Great Gatsby is never any better than this singular bridging sequence, the only one that manages to join together hollow spectacle and heart-wrenching emotion. Once Daisy and Gatsby launch into their renewed affair, Luhrmann’s Gatsby switches gears into a standard-issue cinematic adaptation, the party over, the style gone, everything plunging headlong into unavoidable and surprisingly banal tragedy.
The spectacle of the film can’t really be denied, however, no matter how weak its core themes and emotions may be. This is, after all, an amusement park, and the entire production design, from sets to costumes to hairdressing to makeup is top-notch. If nothing else, The Great Gatsby is worth seeing just to, well, see it. Even its much-talked-about modern soundtrack, a favorite stylistic choice of Luhrmann’s, works to great effect here (save one stultifying stupid use of Jay Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” that almost single-handedly derails the look and feel of an entire sequence). Lana Del Rey’s haunting “Young and Beautiful” is the standout amongst the album’s many rousing pop and hip hop tunes, and it’s emotional and rich enough to give weight to Daisy and Gatsby’s affair as their unofficial theme song.
The gimmicky third dimension does add significant depth of field and proves to be particularly entertaining during Gatsby’s party scenes, wider shots lend the production a painterly effect, the kind that makes everything look undeniably fake. On occasion, it serves to forward a kind of “storybook” appeal (Nick’s garden in particular looks like it’s been ripped from a “Secret Garden” illustration), but it’s ultimately distracting and only serves to instill a sense of distance and disbelief not suited for a production clearly aiming for (and missing) its audience’s emotions and interests.
The Upside: Strong performances from DiCaprio, Edgerton, and Debicki; eye-popping production design and attention to detail; a modern soundtrack that blends in seamlessly; a ruthlessly entertaining first half.
The Downside: Often just too over-the-top (even for Luhrmann); an unexpected tonal shift deflates it of both energy and emotion; an unengaging take on a classic love story; a gutless and boring second half.
On the Side: If you can name them, they were probably at one time rumored for a role in the film, as Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Rachel McAdams, Keira Knightley, Blake Lively, Abbie Cornish, Michelle Williams, Natalie Portman, Eva Green, Anne Hathaway, Olivia Wilde, Jessica Alba, and Scarlett Johansson were all at one time considered for the role of Daisy. Ben Affleck was considered for the role of Tom, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, and both Bradley Cooper and Luke Evans were considered for the part before Edgerton took it on.