Director: Baz Luhrmann
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire
Friend, you have bought yourself the wrong ticket if you’ve gone in expecting subtlety, nuance or depth from a movie by Baz Luhrmann, a director whose amp is stuck permanently at 11.;
The Australian bling king, best known for attempting to reinvent Shakespeare with Romeo + Juliet and reimagining Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème as Moulin Rouge!, is a ringmaster of gaudy, way over the top gaga extravaganzas and spectacular spectaculars. In a cautious, corporate era of moviemaking, his is a peculiar, almost admirably quixotic aesthetic that pretty much says, “more is not enough.” Like some hyperactive, highly creative love child of Ken Russell, Peter Allen and Elton, this is a director whose best work can be enthralling, if exhausting. When things don’t come together, Luhrmann’s work could drown you in giddy, gauzy, campy, candy-colored kitsch.
After Australia, a deliriously brave attempt to create another romantic epic à la Gone with the Wind, he’s now taken aim at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. He and frequent script collaborator Craig Pearce have pummeled Fitzgerald’s masterwork, an American fable set at the height of the ultimate party of prosperity known as the Roaring Twenties. In case you’ve forgotten the novel since high school—or, like too many, you’ve only cribbed from the Cliff Notes version—The Great Gatsby is a shimmering, deceptively simple cautionary tale in which an aspiring writer recalls the summer of his relationship with a legendary, haunted, class-conscious dreamer and self-made zillionaire named Gatsby and that sad, delusional man’s pursuit of a brittle, fascinating, casually cruel married Southern belle named Daisy. It’s a novel filled with mirage-like symbols and meanings that, on paper, haunt the imagination; on screen, they’re cheap and obvious.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, though, even if the pleasures are slightly guilty ones. Lurhmann fans who get off on his swirling camera, ADD-style cutting, overstuffed posh and wretched excesses won’t feel let down by what he’s done to Gatsby. For instance, as the title character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, makes his first entrance, the screen erupts with fireworks and the soundtrack thunders with a crescendo from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Top that.
Swirling around his starry cast that also includes Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton and Isla Fisher, the director and his coproducer Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter have triple-iced their 40-layer, 10-ton sugar cake with an anachronistic rap, torch and rock music soundtrack that includes cuts by Beyonce, Jack White, Lana Del Rey and Jay-Z, the last of whom spins rhymes about the crash of the stock market, a cataclysmic event that happens seven years after the movie’s action. Not that anyone will be paying that much attention, what with the dump truck of visual and aural goo spread over the Jazz Age by moviemakers who’ve concocted a dizzyingly opulent looking thing—in 3-D with massive amounts of CGI—but one that not only looks like a flashy video game but also entirely misses the point of the novel.
If Fitzgerald’s scathingly critical book in part warned about the dangers of new American millionaires and the triumph of imagination over reality, Luhrmann grovels in excess, flinging at us confetti, eye-rolling, wild-dancing partygoers and Gatsby’s expensive Prada silk shirts in the way hokey old 3-D flicks tried to make audiences duck by hurling boomerangs and tomahawks. Does Baz Lurhmann know that he’s remaking The Great Gatsby and not Brian De Palma’s Scarface? Maybe he doesn’t see any difference. Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t the first big movie star of his era to play Gatsby, the mysterious, faintly sinister poseur and romantic who throws wildly extravagant parties through which he floats. Noirtough guy Alan Ladd, for instance, got there in the late ’40s, and though the movie he’s in may be shaky, he’s the real deal. You can see what DiCaprio is going for, and often he’s right on the mark in playing the shadowy, up-by-the-bootstraps, determinedly upwardly mobile guy who peppers his conversations with “old sport” and struggles to master a posh accent and tony affectations he’s studied from stage plays, books and the friends he buys. The star looks like a gilt-edged thoroughbred and, when the movie isn’t fussing over and fetishizing him instead of making him a figure of ridicule, he may not be stretching himself, but he’s quite good.
As the captivating, beautiful, empty-headed and irredeemable Daisy, Carey Mulligan, miscast, tries hard but looks stranded; the way the movie treats her character and the way she plays it snuffs the character’s light and magic and leaves only the glum. You have to wonder why this Daisy haunts Gatsby so much, aside from her social class and unattainability. As Mulligan’s brutish, racist, philandering, polo-playing aristo husband, the usually powerful Joel Edgerton also gets mired in a sea of swank and chintz. He’s so clearly not to the manor born that it’s tempting to wonder how he might have played Gatsby himself. As Edgerton’s blowsy mistress from the wrong side of the tracks, the gifted Isla Fisher plays a tragic character as if she were a gum-snapping tootsie out of a revival of Guys and Dolls.
DiCaprio’s buddy Tobey Maguire is cast as Nick Carraway, the struggling writer swept into the tidal wave of Gatsby’s wealth and charm. The actor fits the bill by always looking three or four steps behind the fast, sexy, beautiful crowd his character is running with. But instead of being Fitzgerald’s wised-up, melancholy observer of the rot and decline he’s witnessing, the movie makes him a doe-eyed drag, a eunuch. And when poor Maguire is required to constantly drone the narration in that scratchy, half-awake monotone of his, he plants an already sickly movie six feet under. Badly needed energy is supplied by movie newbie Elizabeth Debicki as the pro golfer semi-smitten with Carraway and by Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan as the racketeer and fixer Meyer Wolfsheim. Although both get little screen time, the rest of the movie should only have as much emotion and crackle.