Director Baz Luhrmann has never met a scene that couldn’t be intensified with ample CGI and sweeping panoramas. This trend continues in his new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby,” in which hundreds of elaborate costumes are donned by hundreds of extras whose energy can only be explained by a truck-load of Red Bull. But let’s clarify–these are not negatives. The visuals he and cinematographer Simon Duggan created for his film are the essence of the Jazz Age–constant, manic, hyperactive movement.
Love it or hate it, take it or throw it out a window, this movie is undoubtedly and unmistakably Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby through and through — and it is a considerable upgrade from the stuffy 1974 adaptation featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. It’s a technicolor dream world where confetti falls like silver rain in a Disney World-reminiscent castle and fireworks are perfectly timed with a lift of Leonardo DiCaprio’s glass.
Here’s what goes down: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is an aspiring bondsman who makes his way to New York to pursue the ever-present American dream. He moves into a shabby cottage in the neighborhood of the newly rich, West Egg, on Long Island. Coincidentally, he lives next door to the mansion of the enigmatic businessman, Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio).
Across the bay in the neighborhood of East Egg (for the old money folks), Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her “polo-playin’”, girlfriend-beatin’ husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) live in the shadow of Gatsby’s castle. Nick finds himself caught up in the secrets of the feud between the new money and the trust-fund babies. In the film, unlike the novel, Nick narrates this story from the confines of a sanitarium.
Though Luhrmann’s dedication to depicting the real Roaring 20s is tangible throughout the film, his soundtrack offers a modern twist on the Jazz Age. With collaboration from Jay-Z, this music time-jump (Beyonce and Andre 3000 for example) is adeptly incorporated into the film with a special purpose in mind.
In the 1920s, the Jazz Age was in full swing. The reaction of those who listened to the African American fad was immediate and instinctive. It got your heart pumping. And, as Luhrmann explained in an interview with The New York Times, “…when you think of African-American street music today that is visceral and exciting and is making a big impression on popular culture, that’s hip-hop.”
But when you take away Luhrmann’s glitz and glam, what’s left? An amazing cast which almost goes to waste on a film where real moments are few, fleeting and far between; moments that should have been completely left out of the melodrama that is Baz Luhrmann. That is the film’s true downfall.
The film you see while sitting in the theatre is like a well-manicured lawn (dyed cotton-candy pink in honor of Luhrmann). Every once in awhile, something kindred to real emotion sprouts through the surface. Including when Gatsby sees his beloved Daisy for the first time and falls in love all over again, his face momentarily takes on a stunned softness. But most of the time, what you see is a well-rehearsed, classic Gatsby.
Joel Edgerton brings a sophistication to the roll of Tom, and Carey Mulligan brings a whole new dimension to Daisy. Tobey Maguire, however, is the most real and believable character throughout the whole film. Most of the characters drift in and out as if not quite knowing what they’re going for.
What’s more, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a writer famous for the sharp delicacy of his writing, a concept that Luhrmann seemed incapable of recreating. All of the symbols from the book appear in the film: the green light, the custom yellow roadster and the ever-watchful eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, the Queens ocularist. But in the wrong hands, these symbols become cumbersome and obvious.
There is never a dull moment in this visual spectacle. Being both a Gatsby purist and a huge Baz Luhrmann fan, I got to experience the nerve-wracking feeling of not knowing what to expect and knowing exactly what to expect at the same time. But behind the beautiful over-the-top nature of Luhrmann’s recreation of the Egg universe lies a film that is similar to Gatsby reaching toward that green light–so close, yet so far away.