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“The Great Gatsby” Review: Luhrmann’s Excess Isn’t Enough

Wesley Emblidge

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THE GREAT GATSBY

The news story “Warner Brothers Greenlights $100 Million 3D Adaptation of ‘The Great Gatsby’ For Summer” sounds like an article from The Onion, but it is in fact the movie we’re faced with this weekend. A book where, admittedly, not that much actually happens, has been turned into a big, lavish, two and a half hour long film filled to the brim with the visual style of one of my least favorite directors: Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!”). As a fan of the book (because really, who isn’t?), this was the worst possible way to adapt Fitzgerald’s novel, despite a lot of great casting, primarily Leonardo DiCaprio in the titular role. So is “The Great Gatsby” awful? No. But it sure as hell isn’t good.

For those of you who didn’t even manage to SparkNote the book in high school, here’s a brief primer. Luhrmann and his frequent collaborator Craig Pearce (who also wrote “Charlie St. Cloud”) have chosen the typically lazy adaptation device in creating scenes where the narrator is actually telling the story to someone. In this case, Nick Carraway (the incredibly blank Tobey Maguire, perhaps fitting for such a blank character) is relaying the story of “Gatsby” to a therapist many years after the fact, who then prompts him to write the book.

Nick has recently moved to his home in Long Island, next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby throws exuberant parties every weekend, which one day Nick is finally invited to. When there, Gatsby asks Nick to set up a lunch with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who it seems Gatsby knows from a long time ago.

The parties are where Luhrmann goes his craziest with style, and as a result, are some of the more unpleasant portions of the film. Unlike that of comparable directors such as Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Anna Karenina”) or even Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”), Luhrmann’s style is big and show but instead of necessarily aiding the story, it feels more like he’s screaming “Look at me! Look what I can do with the camera here! Aren’t all these swooping CG landscape shots awesome?” There’s an abundance of terrible green screen work, and such an excess of glitter the question must be asked: what was the glitter budget for this movie?

There’s also been a lot of discussion over how Luhrmann uses music in the film, throwing Jay-Z, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am and more modern music into this 1920’s-set movie. And it does occasionally work, not so much over archival footage of New York or the Valley of Ashes, but much like Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” it often energizes the film where it’s severely needed.

Thankfully in typical Luhrmann fashion, his style really only is in your face for the first half of the film, and in the second half everything feels far more grounded, as if Luhrmann kind of got tired of trying. Even then, the characters in Luhrmann’s films never feel like real people, just manufactured creations, even somewhat cartoonish caricatures at some point. But the cast certainly tries to fix that.

DiCaprio is just spot-on casting for Gatsby. He’s the actor I pictured when I read the book, and from his first moment on screen he’s just radiating “cool.” Of course, part of what’s interesting about the book (and that the film often seems to forget) is how flawed and almost childlike Gatsby is, which DiCaprio also takes on and knocks out of the park. The supporting cast, including the likes of Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom,” “Warrior”) and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki all do their best to work in Luhrmann’s style but also act like human beings.

Oddly enough, the film is actually very faithful to the book in a literal sense, the text is quite literally on the screen, but the film seems to not really care about the characters and ideas that make the book interesting in the first place. Luhrmann’s too interested in having DiCaprio say “old sport” as many times as possible and making his yellow car THE MOST AMAZINGEST FASTEST CAR THAT EVER EXISTED.

I’m not the kind of person screaming “they ruined the book!” I actually like the idea of an adaptation changing things so much, I’m perfectly okay with the book and the movie existing as separate stories (see: “Iron Man 3”). But if you’re going to do that, you still need to make a good movie, not the showy, overblown mess of a film that “The Great Gatsby” is. As with most of Luhrmann’s films, the great cast isn’t enough to get past whatever strange stuff he’s trying to throw at you with his style.

 

2.5/5 Stars

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“The Great Gatsby” Review: Luhrmann’s Excess Isn’t Enough