By Inkoo Kang
Like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, Baz Luhrmann is one of a handful of directors whose name evokes an instantly recognizable visual style. There’s something admirably self-assured about the Australian filmmaker’s ability to insert anything – dance competitions in Strict Ballroom, Shakespeare in Romeo + Juliet, ultra-generic opera plots in Moulin Rouge – in the Luhrmannizer, extruding a homogeneous, garish but fun product that exhausts as much as it exhilarates.
As you’ve probably already seen in the film’s trailer, The Great Gatsby brims full with the kind of optical overdose that Luhrmann has made his signature. The party scenes, which rival the ruffles-and-lace circus madness of Moulin Rouge, have glittery confetti and Disneyland fireworks sparkling above Jazz Age twerkers, swarms of women dressed like sea creatures, and a Williamsburg version of that creepy dancing man from the Six Flags commercials.
The construction and choreography of these set pieces are as sleek as ever, but the rest of the film is astonishingly visually inept. Much too often, Tobey Maguire’s voiceover tells us how the characters feel and how they develop instead of allowing us to see for ourselves. The resulting effect is to make the movie feel less like an adaptation than the next generation of books-on-tape, where we absorb the story aurally. But hey, it comes with some pretty if utterly redundant illustrations if you want to something to look at.
To be fair, Luhrmann is also faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel in a good way – in that the plot is lifted pretty much straight from the book. It’s the Roaring Twenties, and Nick Carraway (Maguire), a wide-eyed Midwesterner, moves to the Big Apple to become a bankster like all the other cool kids. His next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), is a reclusive young millionaire who ropes him into arranging an accidentally-on-purpose reunion with Gatsby’s first love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Nick’s cousin. Nick agrees, despite the fact that Daisy is already married to – and has a daughter with – patrician douchebag Tom (Joel Edgerton, Australia’s answer to Benedict Cumberbatch). The small cast of pretty young things also includes Tom’s working-class mistress (Isla Fisher) and girl-golfer Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), the only character that resembles an actual person, despite existing only to introduce Nick to How Things Are Done in rich-person circles.
As intended by Fitzgerald, Gatsby is a stern fable about the moral hazards of wealth. But a studio film made by a bunch of millionaires and financed by a bunch of billionaires has pretty much no chance at remaining Occupy agitprop. So Luhrmann remade Gatsby for the multiplex as a saga of romantic martyrdom, rendered all the more glamorous and tragic by the opulence the source material condemned. DiCaprio is the perfect actor for this Gatsby, despite speaking in a bizarre accent somewhere between Katharine Hepburn and a fancy horse that’s so wispy it tends disappears by the end of a sentence. He has only a single substantial scene here, but his Gatsby has so many echoes from the Leomania days – his roles from Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, and Catch Me If You Can – that all DiCaprio has to do to summon estrogen devotion is to stand around in spiffy linen suits looking dapper. For her part, Mulligan adds her natural sweetness and kitten eyes to their thoroughly adequate pantomime of mutual adoration.
Unfortunately, the camera returns again and again to Maguire’s Nick, a garrulous nonentity. When the character’s narration doesn’t fast-forward through all the interesting action for you, Maguire’s proximity to DiCaprio distracts from the film’s fiction by reminding you of the BFF stars’ real-life adventures in poonhoundery as the senior partners of the Pussy Posse. Their sexploits would probably embarrass the novel’s Gatsby, but their Hollywood excess would make a great Baz Luhrmann movie.
See it now, See it later, or Run in the other direction? Run in the other direction, unless you need another fix of Jack and Rose.