There’s a saying that filmmakers keep making the same movie over again and again without realizing it, and Baz Luhrmann has become the latest example of that. His “Romeo & Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” dealt with characters looking back at a past they can never return to and of love affairs that ended tragically. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” is not any different from those two films, and it is filled with extravagant scenes that dazzle us with amazing choreography and beautiful images. But while “The Great Gatsby” is a beautiful movie to look at, it lacks the heart and soul I usually expect Luhrmann’s films to have.
The movie starts with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a writer and bond broker, telling about his time in New York during the 1920s (better known as the “Roaring 20s” in the history books). Right there I knew the movie was in trouble as Luhrmann started “Moulin Rouge” off with Ewan McGregor reflecting on an exhilarating past and a great love that has long since passed him by, and Maguire is essentially doing the same thing here. From that point it is clear that this movie will not have a happy ending and that the characters we see enjoying themselves will soon experience an endless suffering. We’re not even five minutes into “The Great Gatsby,” and we can already tell that this is familiar territory for Luhrmann, way too familiar.
The 1920s were a time of great wealth and endless partying, and that came to a crashing halt the following decade when the stock market crashed and many Americans found themselves out of a job (sound familiar?). Carraway finds himself caught up in all the hoopla that came with those times, and it’s at an especially over the top party that he meets Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man as rich as he is mysterious. From there they become inseparable friends as Gatsby shows Carraway around town and introduces him to the most influential people he could ever hope to meet. But it’s when Gatsby takes a strong interest in Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) that things start changing and not for the better. It turns out that Gatsby knew Daisy in the past, and now Gatsby will do everything in his power to win Daisy back from her suspicious husband, polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
“The Great Gatsby” has the same problem Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet” had during its first half; it thrust a lot of style and flash cuts at us at an alarming rate to where we are desperate for things to slow down so we could breathe and take things in. Now Luhrmann did slow things down in “Romeo & Juliet” to where we connected emotionally with the story and its characters, and he successfully reinvigorated one of William Shakespeare’s most overdone plays to where it felt fresh and exciting again. But this time he gets so caught up in the spectacle he is putting up for us all to see that it becomes impossible connect with anything or anybody in this movie. The sensory overload I got in his previous films was exhilarating to take in, but in “The Great Gatsby” everything feels so exhausting and artificial to where it doesn’t matter if you watch this film in 2D or 3D (I watched it in 2D because I refused to spend the extra money). The characters may be starving for emotion, but it’s the audience that needs it even more.
Even if you haven’t read Fitzgerald’s classic novel, it’s easy the direction this story is going to take. As a result, I found myself getting very bored and impatient as I knew Gatsby was going to stumble over his ambitions eventually, and I just wanted see him get his ass handed to him already. Heck, I even got up and went to the bathroom at one point, and that should you give you an idea of how frustrating this movie was for me. I was able to sit through “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” despite needing to pee really bad, but this one I could not hold it in. Yes, that’s too much information, but anyway…
On the upside, the actors acquit themselves nicely in their roles. You can’t really go wrong with DiCaprio, and he does make quite the dashing Gatsby, but there should be a drinking game based on how many times he calls people “old sport” throughout the movie (I got sick of him saying that). His good friend Tobey Maguire has his back as Nick Carraway, and he does a lovely job of reading Fitzgerald’s words to where I’d like to hear him do an audio novel reading of “The Great Gatsby.”
Carey Mulligan, however, is miscast as Daisy Buchanan. She still gets to do her whole woefully vulnerable lady act that she played to perfection in “An Education,” but Mulligan is not able to nail the other complexities this role has to offer. Yes, she is a lovely presence to watch in this or in any other movie she has been in, but that’s not enough to save her performance here.
Clearly a tremendous amount of effort was put forth by the cast and crew on “The Great Gatsby,” but it doesn’t change the fact that the movie is a profound disappointment. Fitzgerald’s novel has been adapted several times with limited success, and many say that it is an exceedingly hard book to translate to the big screen. Luhrmann looked like he was the man who could do it justice, but he really doesn’t come close. What a shame.