From the director of Moulin Rouge. This tells you all you need to know
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire
A young writer finds himself swept up in the incredible affairs of a mysterious millionaire known as Jay Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 book The Great Gatsby has a secured place as one of the great American novels, a story of its time but also strangely relevant almost 100 years later.
That reality weighs heavy on any adaptation into another medium and it holds true for the latest take on the material, from Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann. While the result is unlikely to endure as a motion picture classic, there’s merit in it, especially for those not familiar with the original.
This Gatsby is a strange beast, clinging almost exactly to Fitzgerald’s plot (bar a framing narrative) and often representing the dialogue word for word on screen. Luhrmann even goes so far as to literally show his narrators voice as text from time to time, playing visually with words that meld with the scenery.
But it’s also undeniably a Baz Luhrmann film. The Australian filmmaker behind the revisionist Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom and the Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge brings his eccentric style to bear on every aspect of the production, sweeping the audience from one location to the next in a whirl of opulence.
These two influences are in tension particularly during the first half of the film, with wild parties and endless CG flybys threatening to dull the momentum of the plot and drown out any subtleties from the otherwise able cast. There’s a chance Luhrmann was trying to get across the essential emptiness of this over the top life of excess but the nite club tone does start to grate.
Things improve in the second half as the parties recede and more emotional elements start to creep in. The one problem Luhrman and fellow scriptwriter Craig Pearce face is that the mysteries of Gatsby are never really much of a secret. In the book, they’re revealed at a steady pace, with little pomp and ceremony. The truth behind his past is fairly inconsequential to the original novel, something that’s not a problem on the page.
On screen, these revelations should have been amped up, delayed for longer or shown with some kind of shock and awe. Instead they’re just plonked down in conversation, or even in Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire’s) endless voice over. It all ends up feeling strangely flat, with none of the swells you expect from a spectacular, 3D romantic drama with a budget in excess of €100 million.
That doesn’t mean the cast isn’t trying. Leonardo DiCaprio has a tough job as Gatsby - a man unused to a pompous life who surrenders every fibre of his being for one audacious mission. It’s mostly a quiet performance but one with a lot of range, from dejected and aloof to moments of unbridled humour and hope.
The support is mostly strong, including a memorable Joel Edgerton as Tom and not nearly enough Isla Fisher. Likewise Carey Mulligan’s Daisy never really gets the opportunity to shine apart from a transcendent introduction. Maguire takes the lead role as Nick, ever observing from the sidelines. It’s a fairly dull performance, lacking any interesting aspects and failing whenever emotion is required.
The Great Gatsby has enough visual excess to keep Luhrmann fans entertained but also becomes a more subtle affair in the latter half, moving away from the filmmakers frenetic editing and musical numbers. It’s a change for the better, giving the performers the chance to present a reasonable facsimile of Fitzgerald’s work with few significant additions. And it remains a captivating story, particularly when told in his own words.
Fans of the book may find this a familiar yet strange experience but for Fitzgerald newbies there’s some entertainment value to be had from this extravagant adventure in a fairytale version of the 1920s.