Baz Luhrmann was born to make “The Great Gatsby.” Dazzling excess, star-crossed lovers, and tragedy are the cornerstones to nearly every movie he’s ever made, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has all three in abundance, wrapped in a searing indictment of the pursuit of wealth. All four of those elements of the story are on full display here, but there’s something missing in the execution. For a story with so much passion and longing and regret, it’s surprisingly bloodless. This is not to say that Luhrmann doesn’t hit the emotional buttons; he just doesn’t hit them hard enough. Then again, that may not be Luhrmann’s fault at all, but the source material. A bunch of clueless people ruining their lives by making bad decision after bad decision; it’s like a Mike Leigh movie, with money.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is in a sanitarium for a laundry list of conditions (top of the list: morbid alcoholism), and soon begins telling his shrink about the summer of 1922. Nick had taken a job as a bond salesman during the Roaring Twenties, and found a small cottage in the village of West Egg, where he lived next to new-money millionaires. Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the bay from her, and is (unhappily) married to old-money millionaire and unfaithful thug Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). The man who lives next door to Nick is a mysterious fellow named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jay would throw massive parties every weekend, but his reason for doing so was surprisingly sweet: he hoped that one day Daisy would attend one of them. Daisy was Gatsby’s girl five years earlier, and once Jay discovers that Nick and Daisy are related, he asks Nick to invite Daisy over for tea. This sets in motion a chain of events that would change the lives of all concerned.
The first act ends with as big of a bang as I’ve seen in the movies in years. The party scenes were as lavish and intoxicating as anything Luhrmann’s ever done – which is saying something – and after conditioning us to hear people from the year 1900 singing modern-day pop songs in “Moulin Rouge!,” it’s funny how easy it was to accept people from the ’20s dancing to Jay-Z and dubstep. The second act, however, was problematic, for a couple of reasons. The pacing is awfully sluggish following the slam-bang first act – he rectifies this with a taut third act – but the real problem is that the characters start exposing their true natures, and with the exception of Nick, they’re all pretty unlikable. This is one of the main points of the book, of course, to wave a finger at pompous blowhards who think they’re important simply because they have money. Gatsby isn’t one of those blowhards, but he’s saddled with an equally distasteful flaw, which undercuts the love story at the movie’s core. Did I use the word tragic to describe this movie in the first paragraph? That’s inaccurate. They’re not tragic: they’re pitiful.
Carey Mulligan has ridiculously expressive eyes. Luhrmann does his best to make her look like the most irresistible woman in the world, while Mulligan does her best to reveal Daisy’s shallow nature. Neither, however, can overcome her limited presence in the book versus her significance to the main character. She’s more of an idea than an actual person, and there is nothing a faithful adaptation of the story can do to change that. DiCaprio does a good job of slowly revealing Gatsby’s obsessive nature, but Gatsby comes off as a supporting player here, so there is only so much DiCaprio can do to improve the film. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, is a rock-solid narrator, and delivers his finest performance in years. It would be a stretch to say he stole the movie, but this is the best role he’s had in ages, and he makes the most of it. Friends have told us that the movie’s 3D was stunning, but we wouldn’t know: the screening we attended was out of focus and dark, and when a fellow critic talked to the manager about it, she responded by threatening to call the police. That is not a joke.
“The Great Gatsby” was a good idea in theory. Luhrmann clearly reveres the material, and there are some truly magical moments, but it just doesn’t work like one would think it should, and truth be told, it may never work on screen without some major revisions, which creates an entirely different set of problems. Perhaps it’s finally time we just leave this one alone.