The lavish visuals on display in The Great Gatsby offer an immersive trip into the Roaring Twenties, but this excessive pomp, much like Jay Gatsby’s very personal schemes, are not quite enough to sweep the audience off our feet by the time the credits roll.
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is certainly a visually stimulating time at the theater. Fans of the director’s past films such as Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge should know what to expect with his stylized visuals and frequent use of Top 40 music in the period piece drama, but only one of these elements works this time out.
The visual style of The Great Gatsby is one of its biggest strengths– Luhrmann’s fantastic eye and knack for knowing how to compose a frame are completely on point here. The costumes and the elaborate set pieces– most notably during Gatby’s infamous raging parties– are a wonder to behold, with a chaos and energy and, most of all, beauty in these manic moments. Surprisingly, though, the director punctuates his typical bombastic “more is more” style with some equally gorgeous quiet moments, where the film’s characters can truly shine. Stark images of the green lighthouse that Gatsby stares at across the water– a visual metaphor repeated just enough to feel thematic and not go overboard– are every bit as amazing as the height of the party sequences, with their hundreds of flappers and gangsters, confetti and bright colors.
Luhrmann once again peppers his colorful and rich visual landscape with a decidedly modern soundtrack, but the music never really comes to life on the big screen. Produced by Jay-Z and featuring top tier artists such as Beyonce, Jack White, Lana Del Ray and Will.I.Am, the soundtrack to Gatsby never feels woven into the film, due to its respectable but ultimately failed attempt to fuse actual jazzy 20s music with the the modern artists. There are moments that the music literally pulls you out of the film, but even at its best, it does little to add to the overall experience.
That’s a shame, because the story here is well told, conscisely boiling down F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel into a well-paced movie that flies through its two-plus hour run time. Aside from the stimulating visuals, this is thanks largely to Leonardo DiCaprio’s stellar performance as Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio displays an amazing range which speaks to a true understanding of his character– he excels at both the swaggering, confident outward appearance of the nouveau riche playboy, as well as the crippling insecurities that lie beneath his surface. He really sells Gatsby’s obsessive desire to win back his beloved Daisy, and the humanity and easy charm DiCaprio radiates makes him a thoroughly likeable hero, one you want to see come out on top. As an adaptation of the classic novel, we all know where the story will go for Gatsby… but DiCaprio’s performance makes us truly wish things could turn out different.
The rest of the cast is solid, but nowhere near DiCaprio’s level. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway is fine as the blank slate narrator, but his framing of Gatsby’s tragic tale feels too similar to the structure used as an equally broken Ewan MacGregor played the same role in Moulin Rouge, to much greater effect. Part of that is Carraway’s nature, as the outsider of this world of the old and new rich, but his distance never really synchs up to his own personal crisis, which is established in the first act and never really returned to.
Carey Mulligan plays Daisy’s manic duality, as both the damsel in distress, yearning to be freed from the shackles of her loveless marriage and cruel husband, but also someone too afraid to ever actually leave the pampered existence she has known for all her life. By the end of the film, it’s much more obvious who Daisy actually is, and it makes sense that the fairy tale-esque, stylized fantasy of much of the movie fades away to a more grounded and realistic final act.
I was most torn on Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan. Edgerton is a great actor, and his performance was fine, technically speaking. He absolutely nailed the ugly side of wealth, with a greed so inherent that he is most threatened by Gatsby’s newly acquired money, than his romantic intentions with Tom’s wife. But Edgerton’s rugged looks felt like a poor match for Tom’s old money, country club upbringing. In my reading of the novel, Buchanan became a monster, and that cruelty never truly comes through in Edgerton’s performance– even at his most racist, boorish and controlling, the on-screen Tom never sank lower than being a scummy jerk as opposed to a truly bad guy.
Not everything worked in The Great Gatsby, and what did often reminded me a little too much of Luhrmann’s previous work. But the source material of Fitzgerald’s novel proved perfect for the director’s signature style of filmmaking, and his visual excessiveness made for some truly iconic and rich cinematic moments. Anchored by a strong and confident performance by DiCaprio, the movie is well paced, incredibly immersive and loyal to its classic source material. If the soundtrack had been a bit smoother, the visual effects cleaned up a bit, and the rest of the cast firing on as many cylinders as DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby could have been a true masterpiece. As it stands, what we get is a movie still worth seeing.
–Bill Sencio, CBS Connecticut