This is exactly what I was afraid of. When the reins of the latest cinematic retelling of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby were handed to noted camp-schlock king Baz Luhrmann, my heart sank and I wept for what could have been. I hadn’t even seen it—in fact the movie was a couple years away from reality—and yet, I still knew it would be a disaster.
I feared that, in the hands of Baz Luhrmann, the flamboyant Australian filmmaker who lives for style over substance, the classic American novel might be cheapened somehow, might be hammed and glitzed to such extremes that we might not even recognize it anymore.
How silly of me to worry.
Luhrmann already displayed his audacity with his “re-vamping” of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—sorry, Romeo + Juliet—I guess it was only a matter of time before he took on another icon of literature. Since he probably couldn’t get away with costuming Jesus in sequins, The Bible was out, so why not take on The Great Gatsby. It’s a book about beautiful people, big parties and lots of excess, right? Seems tailor-made for the man behind Moulin Rouge! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the title), right?
But here’s the problem. The Great Gatsby, the classic 1925 novel set in New York in the early ’20s, is not just about the parties and the costumes and the overindulgence of the time. It’s about what those things represent and reflect. It’s a story of obsession, with themes of disillusionment, betrayal and the death of the American dream sprinkled throughout. These are elements that require the hand of a storyteller, the delicacy of character development and the textured exploration of themes. These are not things Baz Luhrmann knows. These are not things Baz Luhrmann has ever even considered. Baz Luhrmann knows only one theme: go big or go home.
So is a Baz Luhrmann-directed The Great Gatsby exactly what I expected? Yes. It is a hollow, suffocating cartoon of a movie, so relentless in its pursuit of the big moment, the big shot, the big scene, the big anything that nothing else can breathe. In a Baz Luhrmann movie, everything is about how it looks, how the camera moves and how vividly expressed it all is. This movie is over-stylized within an inch of its life. Trust me, I don’t have a problem with a filmmakers who use style to express their vision. But, unlike the Tim Burtons and Quentin Tarantinos of the world, Baz Luhrmann’s over-stylized visions do not serve the story—they are the story. And when the story you are ignoring is one of the greatest in American literature, that is an arrogance too much to bear.
And yet, still, there may have been a way for this movie to have been salvaged—or at least been entertaining—if the casting had been done right. No matter what else Luhrmann may have ignored in his retelling of Fitzgerald’s tale, he couldn’t ignore the characters, especially the title character, one of the most iconic in literature. The character of Gatsby is the embodiment of all that seduces, charms, fascinates and haunts us. He is a complex, vulnerable, hopeless and hopeful reflection of the American dream and the living expression of heartache, obsession, insecurity and optimism that drives each one of us. If you do Gatsby right, if this character is played out on screen the way he should be, really, the rest of the movie would be a side note. But, in Leonardo DiCaprio, he is hopelessly miscast, resulting in a movie that is not only overdone and ignorant, but completely lacking in an emotional connection. Jay Gatsby must be played by an actor with resonance, with an earthy masculinity and a soothing sexuality—none of which DiCaprio possesses. No matter how good an actor he is, I have never considered him sexy, alluring or masculine. He will always come off as 24, no matter how old he is, which makes it hard to pull off the desperation of a man beaten down by life. Maybe I am poisoned by the memory of Robert Redford in the 1974 film version, but DiCaprio never even comes close to being Gatsby. And, for me, that’s the movie.
As for the rest of the cast, Tobey Maguire is in completely over his head and Carey Mulligan is, again, totally wasted. Joel Edgerton is the only one who escapes the cartoon presentation, playing the nasty Tom Buchanan with actual depth and moments of genuine pathos. I’m not sure how those scenes snuck in, but I’m happy they did.
Much has been made of the anachronistic soundtrack choices Luhrmann makes in the film, but, to be honest, there’s nothing in the music that doesn’t fall totally in line with the rest of this movie. Luhrmann is going for a totally immersive experience, from start to finish, and if you dig on the stylization of the rest of the movie, you’ll totally dig on the music as well. Nothing else makes sense here, why should the music?
I’ll admit, I did everything I could to enjoy this movie. I gave it every chance. But, as soon as I sat down and put on those 3D glasses, I knew something was very, very wrong. I was so, so right.