Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann (“Australia”)
Written by: Baz Luhrmann (“Australia”) and Craig Pearce (“Moulin Rouge!”)
For having a reputation of delivering gaudy visual feasts even when his scripts aren’t always spot on, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann has surprisingly become a party pooper with his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” the classic tale by F. Scott Fitzgerald set in the early 1920s. In the past, Luhrmann has been able to take a celebrated writer like William Shakespeare and turn a story like “Romeo and Juliet” into his own fantastical creation. His work might feel overblown to some (“Moulin Rouge!,” especially, may cause a few epileptic seizures), but his more-is-more approach without apology is what makes the Australian director spectacular despite his flaws. Still, in “The Great Gatsby,” Luhrmann promises a grand circus and shows up with some really expensive silly string.
The year is 1922 in New York City. Business is booming, liquor is cheap, and the roaring jazz music is turning everyone into wild animals. For a good time on the weekends, most find their way to the mansion of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire whose shindigs are the bee’s knees. When Jay meets his new neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), he seizes the opportunity to become his friend in hopes of reuniting with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Daisy is a girl from Jay’s past who is now married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a hulking polo player and philanderer who beings to question Jay’s new-money success.
Considered one of the great American novels, Luhrmann somehow squeezes all the romance and emotional value from “The Great Gatsby” and diminishes it to a series of soap opera-like encounters. Where other renditions capture at least some of Fitzgerald’s social commentary (the most famous being the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, which isn’t groundbreaking either), Luhrmann hides his under era garb and confetti just long enough for indiscriminate viewers to get sidetracked by the fireworks (and the Jay-Z hip-hop).
That’s not to say a more contemporary soundtrack brimming with anachronistic hits is never welcomed. Director Sofia Coppola did a fantastic job spinning Bow Wow Wow songs inside the walls of Versailles in 2006’s “Marie Antoinette,” but Luhrmann seems to use the music in a much broader way rather than have it support the narrative. Sure, a song like “$100 Bill” drops Gatsby’s name, but it all feels very overproduced and forced.
As Carraway, Maguire is a boy in men’s clothing. Never do we get a sense of the person he is or why he is enthralled with Jay’s lifestyle. He becomes a fly-on-the-wall kind of character and an afterthought long before the credits roll. While DiCaprio is sufficient as the leading man, he, too, is unable to assemble the emotion needed to make Jay’s longing for Daisy soar. It’s not until his two hot-blooded scenes with the well-cast Edgerton that DiCaprio lifts the vale from his enigmatic character. By then, however, all the Cristal has finished, everybody’s gone home, and not even Luhrmann’s decision to scroll Fitzgerald’s poetic words on screen can give another cinematic “Gatsby” reason to exist.