Film Review: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby forgoes substance for spectacle

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Leonardo DiCaprio plays the dashing and mysterious millionaire in the glitzy Hollywood version of The Great Gatsby. Warner Bros. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the dashing and mysterious millionaire in the glitzy Hollywood version of The Great Gatsby. Warner Bros.

Now that The Great Gatsby is out, there’s just one relevant question: To whom is this film targeted? It can’t be people who read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel when it was first released. They’re dead. Is it for recent high school graduates? The millennials, who are plugged into everything all the time and don’t seem to have the attention span for Fitzgerald? Or is it for hip-hop lovers?

That’s really a reach—sure, Jay-Z is an executive producer. He, Beyoncé and André 3000 perform on the soundtrack, but their stamp on the movie itself is pretty tangential, even forgettable.

Whatever the variation on that question, one thing is certain. Director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann thinks his audience is made up of idiots.

How else to explain the changes Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have made to the text? Instead of telling the story from his family home, Nick Carraway is now an alcoholic recovering in a sanitarium, writing The Great Gatsby for his doctor. There’s even an intake sheet listing all of Nick’s symptoms. It’s mind-bogglingly dumb.

Changes happen when adapting a book for the screen. It’s inevitable. But Luhrmann’s changes and embellishments seem to come from a place of silliness, as if he were more interested in bombast than telling the story.

Most of the characters stick to dialogue right from Fitzgerald’s text, but it’s hard to concentrate on the spoken words when you’re distracted by the garish sets, bad 3D and stupid choice—yes, stupid—of having lines from the novel drift in and dance on the screen. Luhrmann, as usual, focuses on the spectacle. It’s almost as if he doesn’t understand the novel, which is critical of its era.

If Nick were narrating Luhrmann’s life, he might lump him together with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom (an appropriately beady-eyed Joel Edgerton) as a careless person. But Luhrmann is a director who, when making Australia, apparently decided to use Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor as inspiration, so no one should be surprised.

The actors are bogged down by their surroundings, too, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby coming off as hapless, even needy. Tobey Maguire, as Nick, comes off best, which is not the kind of thing one expects to write in any review of a movie starring Tobey Maguire. And Mulligan is better than Mia Farrow could ever hope to be, but she, too, is swallowed by her surroundings. Daisy isn’t much of a full-
blooded person, even on the page, so maybe it’s not Mulligan’s fault.

The story, not that it matters (because it doesn’t to Luhrmann): Nick moves into a house on West Egg, Long Island, hoping to make it in the bond market on Wall Street. His neighbor in the palace next door is Gatsby, who is attempting to win Daisy back after a brief romance with her five years earlier. Gatsby and Tom have one great blowout, and DiCaprio really wears that pink suit. But in the end, everything and everyone is suffocated by Luhrmann’s vision. Green lights, valleys of ashes and a dying American dream have nothing on the crushing weight of his thumb.

 

The Great Gatsby PG-13, 143 minutes, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

 

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