Review: Luhrmann’s ‘Great Gatsby’ is okay and nothing more

Baz Luhrmann has made a career out of pushing stylistic boundaries past what seems like good taste or common sense would endure, and when it has paid off, the results are intoxicating. Unfortunately, when it doesn’t work, it makes the artifice that much more distancing and it makes the excess feel excessive. Lurhmann is not the first filmmaker to succumb to the siren song of the book’s beautiful prose, nor will he be the last, but his attempt highlights much of what makes this a work that best exists in its original form.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book was written at the time that the novel takes place, and it is fascinating as a snapshot of a particular time in America’s development, the roaring ’20s at their loudest, raucous and wild and untamed. Jay Gatsby is a very knowing look at a new type of American, the self-made millionaire, compensating for some hole in their personality while amassing a huge fortune, rich but empty. His quest to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan is one of the great Quixotic romantic plays in all of literature, and the language in Fitzgerald’s book sells it all. Dizzyingly well-written, emotional and evocative, it is a feast of language, a clear-eyed piece of pop mythology that positively disemboweled the world in which Fitzgerald worked and played. Working with co-writer Craig Pearce, Luhrmann has adapted “Gatsby” in a way that makes sense considering Luhrmann’s voice, but it’s such a foregone conclusion that it feels to me like it never comes to life. It’s as if every bit of creativity dried up the moment the deal was signed. Yes, this is exactly what I would expect a Baz Luhrmann “Gatsby” would look like, but is that enough?

When Paramount was trying to get the film off the ground in the ’70s, they offered screenwriting legend Robert Towne the job writing it for what was then a ton of money. He turned it down, and later described that decision by saying “I felt it was a very chancy thing to attempt. A lot of what was in the novel was by suggestion. So much of it was in prose and so much of it was utterly untranslatable, and even if you could translate it, I thought it would be a thankless task and you’d just be some Hollywood hack who fucked up a classic. I felt that I had a lot to lose and very little to gain. That whole book is a mirage.” He turned out to be dead right when it came to the Robert Redford version, and I just recently re-read the Mad magazine parody of that film. What surprised me was how much of that parody still feels accurate and on-the-nose for this new version. It suggests to me that this is one of those texts that simply doesn’t make the jump. There is nothing technically wrong with anything that Luhrmann’s done here; it just doesn’t have a pulse, and I’m not sure anyone can overcome that starting with “Gatsby.”

The film is told in voice-over as a story that Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is relating to his doctor in a private sanitarium, where he’s drying out after the events of the film. Carraway is haunted by the summer he spent on West Egg, a village on Long Island where new millionaires buy houses that look around the sound to East Egg, where the old money has traditionally lived. No one makes more noise than Jay Gatsby, owner of a huge mansion on the lot next to the tiny guest house that Nick is renting. Gatsby’s parties are legendary, massive bacchanals that draw hundreds from the city, and yet despite everyone knowing where he lives, almost no one seems to actually know Gatsby himself.

Nick meets Gatsby, and he’s drawn to this mysterious figure with his impossible-to-guess motives and his shrouded-in-legend background, and the more Gatsby tells him, the less Nick knows what to believe. It’s not until Gatsby starts asking about Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s second cousin, that everything snaps into focus. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who pretty much personifies old money. Tom lives his life as if it is his world, and everything it in was made for him. He has the amazing house, the remarkable grounds, the beautiful wife, the sexy mistress, and time and money to burn. Nick finds himself the observer of a whole summer full of games that have to do with desire and dreams and social class, and all of it is driven by Jay Gatsby and his dreams of Daisy.

I am a fan of Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” because I think the style he chose to shoot the film was the perfect illumination of Shakespeare’s text, and he cast the film perfectly. Danes and DiCaprio were young and pretty and both of them seemed like they could just barely get their arms around the emotional storms within them. They were teenage angst made young and beautiful, and the film perfectly captured that sort of everything-or-nothing urgency to what it feels like when you’re young and in love. Luhrmann played every bit of the humor inherent to Shakespeare’s text, and he made the language seem perfectly natural in the context of his movie. It was a remarkable match of source material and storyteller, and everything that worked about “Romeo + Juliet” falls completely flat this time.

DiCaprio is a total misfire as Gatsby, thick and expressionless and unable to evoke any real sense of longing, and Tobey Maguire plays Carraway more as feeble-minded than anything else. Carraway is so passive through so much of the movie, so unwilling to take a position on anything that’s happening around him, that he just doesn’t work as a narrator. Considering he’s the one person who is constantly telling us exactly what he’s thinking and feeling, we learn basically nothing about him, and at the end of the film, he’s just as much of a blank as he was at the start. And since the film is structured as him telling the story as he’s writing it as a book, it seems like we should see some impact from him getting the story out of his system. Instead, it all builds to a shot of Nick pulling that last page out of the typewriter, and there’s honestly nothing more smug than that image. “Yep. Nailed it.” We the audience may know that “The Great Gatsby” is a beloved and critically acclaimed novel, but there’s nothing about what we see in the film that would suggest Nick’s book is anything but a snapshot of fairly awful people being small and terrible.

Technically, Luhrmann’s in show-off mode from the opening of the film to the close, and it’s all very impressive in terms of sound and image. His use of 3D is dazzling as a way of drawing you into these spaces, and the production design and the costuming is all opulent, suggestive of an era rather than slavishly accurate. The soundtrack is probably the weakest for any of the Luhrmann films, and that includes “Australia.” In almost every other movie he’s made, I can name key moments or scenes that are defined by their music, but here, it’s just a non-stop wallpaper of guest appearances by people who are famous RIGHT THIS MOMENT, and none of it sticks. I think the completely unrealistic world of the film would be great if the script supported it or gave anyone anything interesting to do in front of the glittering backdrop.

At heart, though, “Gatsby” is the story of a man who wants to buy the life he’s imagined for himself, and the way it plays out onscreen is resolutely anti-dramatic. First he pines, then they fall into each other’s arms, then there’s a big showdown, and then the world ends. That big showdown, a long boozy day involving almost all of the major characters, should be one big dramatic crescendo, but none of it plays real. None of it feels like it matters to anyone onscreen. There is no spark between these characters, so there are no stakes to the encounter. I wonder if this is a story that we feel any larger connection to these days, when we are more aware than ever of the way money works in this country and the way the system is designed to keep the rich rich and keep the poor invisible. “Gatsby” is a relic, a fairy tale for a time when being idle rich was still something aspirational instead of it being a part of a larger cultural war. Fitzgerald offered up a portrait of something that was very much an active concern when he wrote the book, but we’re looking back almost a century now, and more than ever, the world of “Gatsby” feels trapped in amber.

I have spoken with three people now who have struggled to articulate their feelings about this film before landing on “I didn’t hate it,” and that seems damning to me. I don’t hate it, either, but I can’t really recommend anything about it. It is professionally made and entirely limp, a gorgeous piece of craft hung on a nothing of a script, a prime case of how you can throw all the best intentions in the world at a project and none of it matters if if just doesn’t click, chemistry-wise. There was never a moment in the film where I was anything less than aware that these were actors playing dress-up on expensive and completely artificial sets, and certain performances (Jason Clarke being a prime offender) are so far over the line into melodrama that I couldn’t take any of it seriously.

I do think Mulligan tries her damnedest to make it work, and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is exceptional as Jordan Baker, a minor character who seems to actually threaten to bring the film to life during each of her scenes, but it’s not enough. One of the most famous scenes from the book comes early on, when Gatsby is showing Daisy this world that he’s built for her benefit, and he shows her his clothes. She is deeply moved by the sight of all of these shirts, and by his visible pride at being able to show her how much he’s earned. And all I could think of was James Franco showing off to Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens, rattling off everything he owns and spitting out his repeated mantra, “Lookit my sheeeeeeit.” That is who Gatsby would be today, self-invented and wrapped in the most modern trappings possible, proud of his things because he is ashamed of himself, and “Spring Breakers” feels like it understands that character in a way that this “Gatsby” can’t, smothered as it is in a world of total artifice.

“The Great Gatsby” remains that mirage, shimmering and beautiful and utterly without substance, and it marks a fairly major misfire for this ambitious filmmaker.

“The Great Gatsby” opens nationwide on Friday.