Directed by: Baz Luhrmann.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire & Carey Mulligan.
Fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, will tell you it’s a book that simply cannot be filmed. And in a way they’re right. Gatsby is a decent story but the great pleasure in reading it is not so much the story, but the quality of the writing itself. And you can’t exactly capture that on screen.
Still, like several others before him, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) was not to be deterred. To try and get around the problem, he takes the liberty of making the book’s narrator Nick Carraway (Maguire) an alcoholic, telling the story of Gatsby to a shrink in a sanatorium, eventually typing it out as therapy - his sentences floating across the screen in 3D. It’s an interesting gimmick, but rather than solve the big issue, it’s just one of many annoying distractions.
Carraway is a war veteran, a Yale graduate, and a would-be writer, who’s come east to New York to make his fortune on Wall Street.
He rents a house on Long Island, next door to a mansion owned by Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), an enigmatic young man of immense and mysterious wealth. Gatsby plays host to lavish parties, where the city’s rich young things come to dance and play, going mad to the sounds of Beyonce and Lana Del Rey, who were all the rage in the summer of 1922.
Across the bay from Gatsby’s castle, Nick’s cousin Daisy (Mulligan) lives in similar style, unhappily married to our narrator’s old school friend Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brute of a man from old money.
Having befriended Nick, and introduced him to the seedier side of New York’s respectable facade, Gatsby asks his new neighbour a favour. He and Daisy have a history, and having waited a long time for his chance, Gatsby wants to repeat it.
Two scenes stand out.
One is Gatsby’s first secret meeting with Daisy. She comes to Nick’s cottage, supposedly for tea, while Gatsby waits, a nervous wreck, worried if the elaborate home makeover will impress her. It’s a lovely scene which, in just a few minutes, gets to the heart of who Gatsby is – a smitten, insecure, hopelessly hopeful boy behind a fancy mask that was ruthlessly constructed for just one reason. It also gives you the feeling that he and Daisy clearly had something special, a chemistry that’s still alive and well, perhaps the kind of great love that is worth everything.
That’s a glimpse of the film Luhrmann could have made, but that one scene is really the only time you get a real sense of these things.
The other standout scene takes place in a New York apartment, where Tom takes his mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher), with Nick tagging along. Nick gets drunk, and a wild allnight party ensues – the city itself becoming a character of its own. And if you hadn’t copped it from the earlier extravagant bash as Gatsby’s place, you’ll see here what the director is really up to: He’s trying to remake Moulin Rouge!, swapping Paris for New York, TB for a bullet, and Nirvana for the dubious charms of Jay-Z – who’s also on board here as a producer. The one mercy is that we are spared the spectacle of Leo and Tobey singing.
But the problem with Luhrmann revisiting his finest hour is that, in Moulin Rouge!, it wasn’t hard to be emotionally involved. But Fitzgerald’s characters – in the book, and doubly so in Luhrmann’s hands – are so shallow and frivolous and downright unlikeable, you don’t give a hoot what happens to any of them.
After that, all you’re left with is noise and visual trickery. And there’s plenty of that – dazzling, bombastic, and as hollow as everything else. Though as far as the music is concerned, that might be sort of the point – the hip hop soundtrack riffing on a culture that’s every bit as vacuous as anything Fitzgerald wrote about.
In the middle of it all, the cast gets a bit lost, despite their efforts. DiCaprio gives it plenty of swagger and charm, and though it’s hard at times not to expect him to break ut the Spidey suit – especially when the camera goes swooping through the city – Tobey Maguire makes a decent fit as Nick. Carey Mulligan is a fine actress, and there are moments here when her screen presence alone is breathtaking – but mostly her weakly-written Daisy is just crowded out of the picture.
That picture is pretty, and wild , and vivid, even if the 3D is pointless and utterly crap. But by the end, you might find yourself feeling a bit like poor Nick, itching for a drink to make it all go away.