With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki. Written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. 143 minutes.
THE GREAT GATSBY in 3D. Just like F. Scott Fitzgerald intended, right? Two things you need to know right up front: First, the movie is no masterpiece, but it’s not the train wreck it might have been. Second, do not waste your money on the 3D version. It’s interesting in a few scenes – like the parties at Gatsby’s mansion – and is otherwise wholly unnecessary. It’s a gimmick to part you from your money as are most 3D films, and it’s not worth it.
As to the film itself, one wishes Baz Luhrmann had pursued a career as an art director rather than as a filmmaker. In many ways the film is a visual feast, with costumes and sets that bring to life the 1920’s New York of our collective unconscious. Unfortunately, this is the same director who gave us such movies as “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Australia.” His famous debut, “Strictly Ballroom” is now over twenty years old. When you hear the soundtrack which mixes period music by the likes of Cole Porter and George Gershwin with selections by rap star Jay-Z, you know you’re dealing with someone whose agenda has little to do with fidelity to the story he is telling.
For those who haven’t read the book or seen the four previous film versions of the story, our focus is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an everyman who was born with the right bloodlines. He’s not wealthy, but he comes from good stock, went to Yale, and now works on Wall Street. His cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and they live among the old money in East Egg on Long Island. Nick lives in West Egg, among the nouveau riche, right next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Fitzgerald’s classic novel works on multiple levels, and the film hits the key moments and memorable lines like the Stations of the Cross. From Gatsby’s belief that he can continually reinvent himself to Nick’s selflessness to the self-absorption of Daisy and Tom, Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce make sure you get what you’re expecting. Look, there’s Gatsby showering Daisy with his custom-made shirts. There’s the sinister Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim – who “fixed” the World Series – oddly, played by Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan.
While the film is not a total disaster, it fails in some ways. It’s too long. The 3D is wholly unnecessary. DiCaprio ‘s line reading of Gatsby’s calling everyone “old sport” – something he picked up in his social climbing – sounds like “old spore,” as if he expects them to turn into ferns. Luhrmann’s visuals, stunning as they are, rely too much on CGI effects. When characters race from Long Island to Manhattan, as they do repeatedly through the film, we’re always aware that most of their journey is computer magic as the 3D actors stand out against their 2D green screen backdrops. Seeing this in actual 2D could only improve its realism.
As for the cast, they were desperately in need of a director who could guide their performances. DiCaprio’s entrance as Gatsby a half hour into the movie is masterful… until he opens his mouth. A director like Martin Scorsese (who directed DiCaprio in such films as “The Gangs of New York” and “The Departed”) would have done a much better job collaborating with the actor.
Ultimately, “The Great Gatsby” is about shallow people. Nick, the great observer, watches them self-destruct or run away from any responsibility. In spite of this being the fifth film version, perhaps no movie can really do it justice. Baz Luhrmann is the latest director to take on the challenge, but the result is a movie that might play best with the sound off. Ironically, the first “Gatsby” movie was a silent.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.