The biggest problem with Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not that it's a bad film; it's the wrong film. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is so simple on the face of it that at least four different film versions, this one included, have come and gone, and they have all made the same mistake: they assume all that you need to do is film what's on the page.
But the book doesn't take place entirely on the page, and that's the problem. It exists in a privileged space somewhere between the page and the reader, and the minute you point a camera there it all turns silly and literal. So much of what happens in the story isn't in the bustle of Jay Gatsby's parties or even in the words spoken by one character to another (much of which can be found here), which is why the more of that you put on the screen in an attempt to "bring the novel to life", the less you end up with.
An awkward framing device that tries to tie the movie in with Fitzgerald's own life
is only one of many foolish decisions made in this film.
But don't tell that to Baz Luhrmann, who wasted no time making his version of The Great Gatsby into a mix of a Ziegfield Follies production, a CGI demo reel, and a Douglas Sirk melodrama, in roughly that order. It has endless energy and enthusiasm for its material, but it's not the treatment the material deserves. This error in judgment comes through most in the slower, leaner second half of the film, where we can see a better, less frenetic movie try and fail to emerge from the glittering shell of this one.
Most anyone who encountered the book in high school knows the plot by heart. Young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved to the Big Apple at the height of the Roaring Twenties to make a killing in the bond market. He's distracted instead by the needs of his wealthy and nominally aloof neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo diCaprio), whose money and power are the subject of endless rumor. Gatsby wants nothing more than to win back the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), now married to Nick's old college chum and nouveau-riche swinebag Tom (Joel Edgerton). Perhaps Nick can help Gatsby win Daisy back, and Gatsby senses within Nick a kindred innocent spirit that he himself still has despite his rise to power and infamy. But even Nick's innocence — and maybe especially that — won't allow him to be of any help.
Great actors are at the mercy of a story that doesn't know when to shut up and leave well enough alone.
And again, it's not in this plot alone that the story. Sure, you can take Nick's words and stick them into a voice-over — and the movie does just that, in typical Cinema 102 fashion — but what's magical on the page becomes hokey and heavy-handed when spoken like so many cue cards. At one point in the book when Daisy compares Nick to a rose, Nick makes a sidelong comment to the reader: "I am not even faintly like a rose." Here, he simply says it out loud to her, and what was once sly becomes stupid. Another mistake is when the film fashions Nick Carraway into a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself, by having the movie related in flashback while Nick is undergoing treatment for depression and alcoholism. His therapy, as it were, is to write the whole thing down, which says less about the healing powers of creativity than it does about the banality of such a framing device.
The other problem with putting Gatsby in front of a camera is the temptation to make it a glistening period piece, and the more time and distance we have from the book's period, the greater the temptation. And so Luhrmann's Gatsby shovels in by the carload the wild parties and glitter and then sprinkles it all over a gigantic, meticulously-rendered recreation of 1920s New York City. It looks great, but what movie doesn't look great these days? The imagery isn't the issue; the way it swallows the rest of the movie alive is.
How is it that glitter and dazzle seem obligatory now for filming
a story that wasn't about those things in the first place?
No fault lies with the talent in front of the camera. Like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio has gone from being a pretty-boy novelty to one of the better actors of our generation. Tobey Maguire is fine as Nick, too, and Carey Mulligan as Daisy deserves far better than this movie gives her. They're all at the mercy of a production that doesn't know when (or how) to shut up and leave well enough alone. Such cartoonish ham-handedness sucks the life out of every scene, and it gets worse when the movie slows down in its second half and tries to be "dramatic".
Maybe no movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's book would do it proper justice, but that hasn't stopped one misguided attempt after another from reaching the screen. Luhrmann's version is only the biggest letdown in the sense that it makes its mistakes most obviously and blatantly, and therefore is the easiest one to write off. It's harder to be as dismissive of the 1974 Mia Farrow / Robert Redford version, which at least seemed to understand this was tragic material and played it accordingly. And it didn't make the mistake of assuming that a story set in an age of excess had to be an act of excess itself. For all his power, for all his money, for all his lavish party-throwing and power-gaming and string-pulling, there are some things Gatsby simply cannot have, but the age he lived in didn't know any better either. The book was a repudiation of all that. This movie is an act of dancing on the ruins.