If Baz Luhrmann were a rock musician, he would be a member of Spinal Tap, that fictional band whose amplifiers famously went up to 11. As a filmmaker, he always amps his films to 11 whether they deserve to be at that decibel or not. That is the trouble at the heart of his big, brassy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the secretive millionaire determined to win back the woman (Carey Mulligan) he once loved and lost.
Set on Long Island in the summer of 1922, the story unfolds, as in the book, through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a struggling bond trader who has come east to make his fortune. He rents a cottage next door to Gatsby’s mansion where every weekend large parties are attended by hundreds of New York’s glitterati.
Only later do we learn that the parties have a purpose and Gatsby has his eyes on reclaiming the love of his life, Nick’s rich cousin, Daisy, now married to wealthy, arrogant Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Tom, in turn, has a mistress on the side named Myrtle (Isla Fisher) who is unhappily married to a local gas station owner.
Luhrmann is a showman before anything else. His movies are not so much representations of real life as they are self-conscious theatrical performances, more like an opera. Gatsby's cast appears to be posturing rather than performing.
Everything about the film is extreme. Characters can’t just drive to town. They have to race as if competing in the Indy 500 and pedestrians beware. Characters can’t just throw a party. It must be a choreographed music video. That approach works in a way for Gatsby’s massive funhouse parties but even a quiet celebration in Tom & Myrtle’s flat is filmed in the same hyperbolic way: a drunken bacchanal so loud that the entire neighborhood ends up watching from their windows and jazz musicians accompanying the noise from nearby balconies. Luhrmann is incapable of settling down, foresaking the gyrations of his camera and abandoned his A.D.D speed cutting to just let a quiet scene play out on its own.
Gatsby’s entrance is so over the top (he holds up a champagne glass while fireworks go off in the background and the climax of “Rhapsody In Blue” plays on the soundtrack) that the moment crosses over into camp. The audience I saw it with couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
Most of the cast struggle to break through the movie’s oversaturated surface. Carey Mulligan is a major disappointment as Daisy. She looks perfect but ill at ease in the role. She speaks her lines without ever making them sound like something a human being would say. She appears to be reading rather than acting. We never see why Gatsby would devote his life to winning back this vapid Daisy.
Tobey Maguire is fine as Nick but too old for the role. Isla Fisher makes a tempting Myrtle but she has only one extended scene early on before she disappears from the narrative till the end. Elizabeth Debicki makes a hip Jordan Baker but her screen time is also brief and the narrative soon forgets about her after she has served her dramatic purpose.
There are scenes where Luhrmann does turns the movie’s volume down to 7 or 8 and shows us what kind of film Gatsby could have been if he had stopped imposing his own visual style and just let the material speak for itself. The tea at Nick’s home where Gatsby and Daisy are reunited works because Luhrmann discards his box of visual trickery and just lets the actors act. They prove totally up to the challenge. The same is true of the big hotel confrontation between Gatsby and Tom. It is the highlight of the film and it is all due to the actors and not Luhrmann’s filmmaking pyrotechnics.
In the end, the new Gatsby plays out like a music video: all glitz and no substance, a dazzling surface with no discernible humanity underneath. There is no inkling as to why this great story continues to entrance us almost 90 years after its publication. It is as memorable as last week’s celebrity scandal, and just as forgettable.
Vacation by The Go-Go's
Because my mind is stuck on summer right now. Because this is one of the first music videos I loved.