There is nothing stunning about The Great Gatsby. It is a massive production with equally massive sets, costumes, and characters. It has colours as bright as the sun, and many of its sequences are fast, furious, and sometimes dizzying. But so what? The classic novel on which this movie is based isn’t considered a classic because it’s loud and gaudy; it’s a classic because it addresses important themes with important characters. Baz Luhrmann has forgotten about the characters and chosen instead to focus on spectacle. But not even the spectacle is good.
I say the spectacle is not good for two reasons. One: I dislike green screens, unless they are completely necessary. You can’t go into space without shooting some green screen footage. But you don’t need a green screen when you’re driving a car, or if you’re standing on a pier. Not in this day and age anyway. And one would think that if you are going to use a green screen, you’d be able to make it less obvious (unless, of course, you’re making a Sin City or 300 movie). Two: The story of The Great Gatsby doesn’t need spectacle. Its main character uses spectacle, yes, but the spectacle is only for show. His life doesn’t revolve around the glamour. This is where Luhrmann falters, because he is all about the glamour, and here, it consumes him.
The story is told in flashback from the perspective of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), now in an asylum. What he’s doing in the asylum we never find out, but he’s there, and he’s telling his story to his doctor. He knows Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) because he’s his neighbour. Nick’s house is a tiny cottage, and Jay’s is a mansion as big as a castle, with fountains, endless corridors, pools, driveways, and those arches made out of foliage. It looms over Nick’s cottage like a monster, and its windows are like menacing eyes that conceal dark secrets. And then, of course, we find out that it is hiding secrets, and that its owner, Mr. Gatsby, is an enigmatic figure. People know of him, they hear his name, but they’ve never seen him. He holds grand parties but his bartenders don’t know his face. Rumours are passed around like nobody’s business, and if you want to know anything about him, you’ll have to piece your own story together.
Nick receives a personal invitation from Jay one day, something that never ever happens. He attends the party and tries his best to not blend in. And then he meets him, face to face. The man nobody ever sees. And he’s not grotesque like the Phantom of the opera; he’s charming, with a great smile, and manners to make a gentleman blush. He treats Nick like his own brother. But there’s a catch. He wants Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). They fell in love five years ago, then Daisy married Tom (Joel Edgerton), and Jay has been trying to get her back ever since.
He is a man of many secrets, and his greatest asset is his ability to keep them all safe. He protects his secrets with a passion, because his secrets are all he has. Inside, he is nobody. He’s hardly even a man. When he meets Daisy for the first time in five years, he fumbles and mumbles like a little boy. He drops a clock and breaks it, and he stands out in the rain, away from her. He is completely lost, because he has seen his lost treasure, the icon of a green flashing light made flesh, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. He is utterly frail, and Luhrmann captures this frailty at very irregular intervals. He doesn’t give us enough. We need to pity this man, but all we end up doing is observing him. Leonardo makes a good Gatsby, but like the rest of the movie, he is nothing special. He smiles, and vibrates, and shouts and swears, and then he smiles some more, with the occasional kiss. He is acting the part, not living the man. When the end comes, I feel nothing for him.
This has to be Luhrmann’s fault, because we have seen DiCaprio at his best — The Departed, Inception, even Titanic. As much as he wants to be a good Gatsby, he can’t go very far, because in his way is an impenetrable sheet of design. Luhrmann is known for his excess (and in this regard, so is Gatsby). His older movies all have some sort of theatrical showmanship about them, whether it’s by combining old school dance with modern pop, or by setting vintage stories in current times. The Great Gatsby is like an orgasm for him. Everything he has done in the past seems to have culminated here with this one movie. He even upstages the Jazz Age of the story with modern rap and R&B tunes, which even now, I don’t know if I appreciate. The movie isn’t tasteless; it’s just needlessly extravagant. Maybe Luhrmann was the wrong choice. I suspect a different director would have revolved spectacle around the importance of the character, instead of the other way around. Alas, we will never know, unless this story follows the recent trend of undergoing reboot after reboot until perfection is achieved.
As a side note: I was reading Roger Ebert’s review of the 1974 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” — directed by Jack Clayton, starring Robert Redford — and found his opening paragraph to be rather appropriate for Luhrmann’s. “The Great Gatsby is a superficially beautiful hunk of a movie with nothing much in common with the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. I wonder what Fitzgerald, whose prose was so graceful, so elegantly controlled, would have made of it: of the willingness to spend so much time and energy on exterior effect while never penetrating to the souls of the characters. It would take about the same time to read Fitzgerald’s novel as to view this movie — and that’s what I’d recommend.”
Best Moment | Amitabh Bachchan’s appearance.
Worst Moment | The horrendous conversation scene between Nick and Jay, as Jay speeds around traffic in his giant yellow car.