The Great Gatsby
2013 - 143 minutes
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
(based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton,
Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke
Like most red-blooded American teens, I was first introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school English class. And, like many, I under-appreciated the work until several years later. The story it tells is simple on the surface, but cuts deeper at, among other things, the trappings and illusions of the American Dream in the roaring 20s.
Nearly a century after Fitzgerald’s book, we’re presented with another attempt to translate the work to film, and it still proves to be an elusive exercise. The 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow is a stale, literal imagining; while Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film attempts something grandiose only to wind up equally as flat.
The film hits most of the novel’s dramatic high notes, but they are all back-loaded to the much better second half, which follows the opening’s dizzying, yet largely boring stylistic exercise that favors sheen rather than story. While the novel is dense despite its relatively short length, Lurhmann’s film is remarkable for being overwhelmingly shallow despite a bloated runtime of over two and a half hours.
Renting a small home in West Egg, New York in 1922, bonds salesman Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) stumbles into the world of mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the uber-rich owner of the mansion next door where lavish parties are a regular occurrence. Eventually befriending Gatsby, Nick learns of the motivating factor behind the excess – Nick’s cousin Daisy, who lives across the bay beyond the green glow of a dock light that lures Gatsby like a siren song. She lives with her philandering brute of a husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) with no knowledge the man she once loved waits to woo her again.
The plot points are ingrained pieces of culture – from Tom’s involvement with Valley of Ashes woman Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), wife of gas station attendant George (Jason Clarke), to the truth behind Gatsby’s fortune and his dealings with gangster Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan).
What’s new in this version is a framing device with Nick in a sanitarium, recounting and writing the story at the instruction of his doctor as a means of therapy. This allows for our narrator to gloss over events and literally tell us what is happening as words fly at us in 3D. Gaps are filled in when Luhrmann is more interested in spectacle than dramatic character moments. Telling us rather than showing us is a strange irony considering Lurmann's love of showmanship and all it does is further deflate the dramatic balloon.
Characters remain mostly mysterious and even when revelations are made it is difficult to connect with any motivations. The developments work much better on the printed page and this film may prove that a filmic interpretation is not only unnecessary but useless. The character of Daisy is the most intangible and it is never apparent why she is the object of such desire, her blank look and squeaks of dialogue suggesting very little beyond vapidity.
Only a few moments stand out, the most memorable being the near-confrontation between Gatsby and Tom in the hotel room that kicks off the final act. It was the first time anything felt believable, but just as quickly as it comes, it ends. No momentum builds towards the climactic car accident and its consequences, as the film begins to hurry up and end, making up for time wasted in the first half.
As much as DiCaprio, Mulligan and Edgerton (in a thankless and underwritten role) try, there is no elevating this story beyond anything but a technical demonstration. To the film’s detriment it echoes the facades of its main character, his success not much more than a smokescreen – or in the case of the film, 3D confetti and fireworks.
Perhaps this slick film version of "The Great Gatsby" will garner well-deserved, wide praise long after its initial run, much like the famed novel, and be screened for generations of film students. But I seriously doubt it.
© 2013 by Blake Crane