The Great Gatsby Tells the Story of Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a frustrated writer turned bonds salesman, who becomes entwined in the lives of the New York super-rich in the booming 20’s, and in particular his mysterious and uber wealthy neighbour Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio), who despite seemingly having everything a man could want, desires the one thing he can’t have, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the wife of boorish millionaire Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). As Gatsby pursues Daisy at all costs, Nick finds the world of the privileged not all it seemed to be. Hilarity ensues?
I’m generally against adaptations of literary classics. I know that’s a bizarre opinion to form let alone take a stand on, but if you look at it solely from the perspective of the movie, they’ve just got nowhere to go. At best they can be an acceptable, professionally made slideshow imitation of the original novel, they can still win awards and there is certainly an audience for them, but they can never approach the inspiration or the value of the original work. Too much reverence is required and too much respect is demanded. So more often then not they become a copy of a copy, reiterating what was once genius until it becomes ordinary to sell tickets.
So take that biased philosophy with the knowledge that this would be directed by Baz Luhrmann, a director not without an eye for visual splendor but pretty much without an eye for emotionally engaging storytelling, and the trailer, which played up the art deco decadence and made the thing look like a particularly expansive rap video. I can’t say my expectations were particularly high. But I tried my best to disregard my psychic ability as nonsense and go into the movie with an open mind, and for all his faults and flawed movies I do believe that Luhrmann has something to offer as a director. I’m a fan of Moulin Rouge, for all its gaudy excesses and lack of subtlety. It felt like a film-maker at the top of his game, every frame filled with confidence and intent. It felt like a genuinely modern take on a genre that has struggled to fit into the world of modern cinema, and one shot beautifully from top to bottom. Before and since that though, Luhrmann has struggled to find his place in movies. A director who likes big-budget excess but with an apparent disinterest in shooting PG-13 action, AKA pretty much the only place where big-budget excess is tolerated these days, his career has seemed a bit lost.
Australia, a failure by any measurement, seemed like a plea for the return of the spectacle and style of old Hollywood, Adventure over action, lovable rogues over comic book heroes. Perhaps the era Luhrmann would have done best in. And in many ways The Great Gatsby is a continuation of that. A third consecutive film set in the early 1900’s, Luhrmann is on safer and securer ground here as he turns to an adaptation as opposed to an original work, knowing he’ll be given slightly more leeway, but at the same time he also stumbles into his greatest weakness as a storyteller, which is telling a coherent and complex emotional story without relying on pageantry and misdirection. And it he just gets it all wrong. He doesn’t seem to get what an intimate story The Great Gatsby is until the final forty minutes, after he’s shot all he can of the roaring Twenties set to Fergie and Jay-Z on the soundtrack. The film backdates its emotional core, to the point where the exposition and emotional dilemma come flying at you, and scenes which are no doubt supposed to emotionally devastate fall flat because they come to quickly and have not been earned. Luhrmann used this source material for his own purposes, to revel again in early 20th century visual excess, but he’s short changed the story’s darker elements, the story’s satirical elements and in many ways its soul, to do so. Which is mightily ironic really when you think about it.
All this is a shame really, because Leonardo Di Caprio is fantastic as Gatsby, and probably single handedly saves this film from being an outright disaster. He perfectly conveys the sensitivity and single-mindedness of the character, remaining likable and admirable whilst not short changing the weaknesses of the character. It’s just about as strong and anchoring performance as a film like this could ask for, and it papers over the cracks of the unfocused and messy structure of the movie. The Supporting performers have more mixed results, with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carroway a passenger in the story by design, and thus not really getting much to do beyond comment on what is going on. I thought Maguire was solid enough though. Carey Mulligan, an actress I’m a big fan of usually, seems to struggle a bit with both the accent and not crossing the line into over the top territory. I didn’t think she was awful, but its certainly not her best performance. The rest, in true Lurhmann style, come across as larger than life caricatures, from Joel Edgerton’s boorish rich boy to Jason Clarke’s alcoholic mechanic to Elisabeth Debicki’s Katherine Hepburn impression. I generally could have done with a lot more restraint with these characters, a couple of whom are integral to the story and need to be taken somewhat seriously to pull of what needs to be pulled of later, particularly Edgerton, who needed to display a slight indication of intelligence before the character was required by the story to be the smartest guy in the room. Unconvincing.
I don’t think this movie is terrible, Di Caprio’s performance and Luhrmann’s undoubted eye for spectacle means their are things to enjoy here. There are even things to be impressed by here. But arguably for this story to be done the most justice, certain aspects of the Luhhmann repertoire needed to mature. He needed to be more comfortable with stillness, with allowing the actors to sell the scene instead of trying to do it for them. But none of that really happened and his version of The Great Gatsby is exactly what the cynic in me would have expected it to be. Synthetically beautiful but hollow, with Di Caprio bailing the movie out of being complete mess. I understand why on paper it looked like Luhrmann and The Great Gatsby was a sure thing, but its actually a horrible pairing. A story that condemns the soullessness of excess of the 20’s told by a man who’s spent most of his career reveling in it. The movie has made money, so Luhrmann will get at least one more shot at a big budget yet, but I hope he finds something that caters more to his apparently undeniable limitations as well as his obvious strengths.
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