Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" Stumbles Out Of The Gate

Having been delayed from December 2012 to May 2013, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” appropriately tastes like flat cola – not entirely unpleasant, but failing to realize the potential of its ingredients. Not that the five-month holdup had any bearing on the end result, mind you. But had Warner Bros. released the picture in the midst of the 2012 Oscar race, they’d likely have been laughed out of Hollywood. While writer-director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) keeps the film relatively faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, his respect for the source material is difficult to praise since it goes hand-in-hand with a hip-hop-centric soundtrack. It’s not one spectacularly bad decision that sinks “The Great Gatsby,” but a series of mediocre ones, leaving us with a film as forgettable as it is unnecessary.

If you’ve gone to high school, you’ve likely come across Fitzgerald’s novel – or at least the Cliff’s Notes. Set in the early 20s, just as the decade was beginning to roar, the narrative is fueled by economic and alcoholic booms. The titular Jay Gatsby is a peculiar, young millionaire who throws lavish weekly parties at his Long Island estate, seemingly aimed at no one in particular. These extravaganzas catch the eye of fellow thirty-something and neighbor, Nick Carraway (our narrator in both the book and the film), and their ensuing friendship goes on to change their lives and the lives of everyone around them.

Leonardo DiCaprio, as well-coiffed as ever, stars as Gatsby, while Tobey Maguire plays Carraway. Luhrmann’s framing device – that Carraway is literally writing the story as he narrates it – is badly misguided, and it’s a misstep that the picture never recovers from. Nick Carraway is an inherently passive, observational character, so to give him center stage – to give him so much influence within the narrative – makes little sense and undermines the duality of Jay Gatsby. Maguire seems to have no grasp of who he’s playing, stuck somewhere between the worlds of Fitzgerald and Luhrmann. However, it’s very clear as to why Luhrmann made Carraway an active component of the story, complete with hackneyed “present-day” scenes.

In other words, Baz Luhrmann adores Gatsby, which is an interesting approach to the material, but here it borders on hero worship. Gatsby is a lot less interesting when his flaws are glossed over, and while his love for his ex-flame, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), is deeply felt, Luhrmann’s interpretation is romanticized and one-dimensional. As a result, instead of Carraway slowly souring on Gatsby’s lifestyle of decadence, Nick ends up merely sad because of his friend’s fate. The nuance of the novel is totally absent, leaving audiences to fill in the blanks. Moviegoers unfamiliar with the book will get even less out of the experience.

The supporting cast is rounded out by Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s oafish, racist husband, Tom Buchanan, Isla Fisher as his mistress, Myrtle, Jason Clarke as her jealous, violent husband, George Wilson, and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as golfer and love interest to Nick, Jordan Baker. Fisher fares poorly, her scenes played as tacky visual pastiches, almost “Dick Tracy”-esque in their use of primary colors, reducing her character to a caricature. Edgerton and Clarke (both of “Zero Dark Thirty”) are given little to do, while Debicki all but vanishes by the second act. This is wholly DiCaprio’s film – the rest of the cast just acts in it.

The picture’s first act is a hot mess, quickly overdosing on CGI while giving us the worst ADR (automated dialog replacement) in recent memory. Characters’ mouths often don’t match their voices, particularly that of Gatsby when he takes Nick for a ride in his Rolls Royce. It’s not until Gatsby begins to woo Daisy that Luhrmann finds any sort of visual or narrative groove. The film is at its best when it slows down, and despite its thematic shortcomings, there are some decidedly lovely moments – all of which involve Gatsby and Daisy. The chemistry between DiCaprio and Mulligan is palpable, making Luhrmann’s creative liberties a bit easier to digest.

That the picture nearly takes flight in its quietest moments is an argument against Luhrmann’s overbearing visual style, and it’s for the best that these trappings are mostly left behind with the clumsy first act. If “The Great Gatsby” does anything well, it’s in picking up steam as it hurdles toward its inevitable conclusion. Any film that steadily improves throughout is worthy of some praise, and “Gatsby” earns at least a modicum of respect by never taking its audience for granted. Some will see the film as a missed opportunity, while others will just be grateful that it’s not disastrous. Both points of view are valid. What’s certain is that “great” is too strong a word. Just “Gatsby” would have been a more appropriate title, but even then the film would have fallen short of its namesake.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: May 10, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenwriter: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language)