Baz Luhrmann turns his films into a carnival of excess. He’s the Jay Gatsby of film, and his parties are his movies. A riot of colors, the soundtrack shrieking, set-designed to death, and beaten down with an array of camera tricks, swoops, dives, and bad digital matte shots, Gatsby is transformed into the cinematic equivalent of a Halloween night candy binge. It’s all sugary sweet tastes and vivid color until the inevitable stomachache kicks in and it all comes right back up in a technicolor yawn of epic proportions.
Baz Luhrmann’s movie is a Spinal Tap amplifier turned up to 11, and if you can’t handle being buffeted by a violently loud score, foleyed sounds like hammer blows, and the queasiest camera movements since Cloverfield, then I suggest you stay home. Michael Bay wishes he could create sonic thunder like this. It is punishing to the ears, or at least it was in the theater I attended, and no less hard on the eyes.
I understand what Luhrmann is trying to do. By utilising his usual techniques and employing an army of choreographed dancers and revelers, he’s trying to push out the idea that Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws a great party, but shot after shot and scene after scene of abject craziness from well-dressed Jazz Age gadabouts flailing and flopping to the rumble and bounce of a hip hop soundtrack can be a little much. He is a very flashy director who loves impressive transitions, but it’s overwhelming visual stimuli, piling busy on busy to create a tableau akin to a writhing carpet of depravity.
Most of the experiments don’t work (the CGI is terrible), but I actually think updating the soundtrack to a mush-mash of jazz and hip hop works much better than it actually has any right to. Both are the music of the young people, the music of rebellion and celebration. It’s no wonder Jay Z saw fit to be an executive producer and contribute to the soundtrack; he probably sees a lot of Jay Gatz in himself. Both self-made men who pulled themselves up from poverty through illegal means (bootlegging and selling drugs) only to find themselves rubbing elbows with politicians, celebrities, and the super-rich by virtue of their massive fortunes and awesome parties.
If there is one saving grace to The Great Gatsby, it is Leonardo DiCaprio. He is really a brilliant actor, and there is a wonderful undercurrent he keeps coming back to. There’s the outward projection of the gracious host, or the confident success, and all the while under the surface is a deep layer of insecurity that is betrayed by the eyes, if nothing else. He smiles, but it never gets past his lips. He looks cool and confident, but his eyes betray his anxiety, his fear that he will be sniffed out for the fake that he is. In that sense, his expressions are as false as he is, and DiCaprio captures that brilliantly.
For the rest of the roles, it seems as though Baz Luhrmann went out and got the most obvious choices he could for them, and it shows. Carey Mulligan is a beautiful-looking Daisy, but she’s not able to capture the manic highs and depressive lows that the character experiences; she’s a bit too pensive and perhaps a little too nuanced and deep for what is a pretty void role. Joel Edgerton goes a bit too far in the other direction, taking Tom’s brutishness and transforming that into his only real trait, bulldozing through scenes and eating scenery in a way that would make Al Pacino jealous. Tobey Maguire is a good choice for Nick, but he’s burdened by an absolutely abominable framing device that really does not work with the rest of the movie and should have never made it past the first draft.
The only really non-obvious choice made was picking an unknown named Elizabeth Debicki to play Jordan Baker; she’s a strikingly tall woman who both looks the part, moves in an authentically athletic way, and can act the role. She may be the breakout star of the film when all is said and done. Isla Fisher as Myrtle actually was a great bit of casting, thanks to the attitude Fisher was able to capture in her brief part, but she’s already a well-known quantity. The look of the cast is perfect, perhaps too perfect.
When Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a lot of viewers criticized the film for being too in love with the source material to make any changes, rendering it a mere clone of the original source material without a beating heart. The same can be said (and more accurately said) about the 2013 Gatsby. From a sheer spectacle point, Baz Luhrmann nails The Great Gatsby. His parties look like the lavish spectacles that they should be and for the first half of the movie, they’re enough to keep the film interesting, if not good. However, the terrible framing device keeps popping up to deflate the film’s tires and when Gatsby’s parties give way to the love story, the film goes completely flat.
A very good cast and a great look, but with no soul and the emotional depth of a high school book report, The Great Gatsby is a cinematic sugar high that leaves behind nothing but rotten teeth and a foul stomach.
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