As any of my film students could tell you (most likely with eyes rolled back as they remembered the lesson), the last stage in the development of a genre is the parodic/baroque stage. That’s the stage where the key elements of a genre (a western, a musical, a gangster film, etc.) are so familiar to audiences that directors simply use those key elements for parody or for stylization. Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby isn’t parodic—except perhaps on one level as a parody of Luhrmann’s own oeuvre. What it is in spades is baroque—taking a genre or story’s elements and dressing them up, spinning them around, oftentimes drowning the entire lily in gilt.
This is Luhrmann’s stock in trade. His Romeo + Juliet (also starring Leonardo DiCaprio) and especially Moulin Rouge are not versions of anything per se, but stylizations, as well as exercises in excess. That’s not a criticism, just a description. Original sources (classic plays, an entire genre, a classic work of American literature) are just jumping off points for Luhrmann, simply mannequins to dress up or grist for his mill of color, music, and camera movement. Luhrmann’s candy coatings almost overwhelm the slim story that is Gatsby’s, yet somehow the novel’s strong narrative prevents the film from careening off course into a whirlwind of sound and light.
Not that this Gatsby doesn’t come close. As in Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann uses anachronistic music that breaks the film out of its original time and place. His party scenes, even in 2D, are riots of color, sound, noise, and movement that seem to catch the director’s interest more than any other aspect of the story. They’re loud in every sense of the word. They serve on one level to represent how our narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is fascinated and enthralled by Gatsby’s material excess, but the scenes are visual crack that threaten to overstimulate the viewer and imbalance the film as much as the early scenes did in Moulin Rouge. The colors, the sounds, the personalities that we may or may not recognize (“Oh, there’s Cab Calloway, and isn’t that Josephine Baker—or are those just lookalikes?”), and the sweeping camera movements scream wild party, but their immersive qualities pull us too far away from the story and the people.
Thankfully, the people are played by actors who generally find their parts, or are good enough to distract us from characters that aren’t fully or clearly defined. The center of it all narratively isn’t Gatsby (DiCaprio), but Nick. Maguire has the sweetness and unusual combination of young adult maturity and naiveté to keep us interested, though the wide eyes are perhaps a bit overplayed. The framework (no spoiler here) that keeps Nick front and center could only work with someone with the kind of accessibility that Maguire has. He bears the Herculean task of keeping the film grounded, and to the greater part, succeeds.
Gatsby has always been a challenge to play, because he’s deliberately not a clear-cut character in the book. He’s a monster, a chimera, a stand-in for (you fill in the blank), a lovelorn little boy lost, and a Rorschach test for the reader all in one. In Luhrmann’s hands and camera, he’s the Golden Boy for all times. DiCaprio’s boyish good looks have mellowed into a soft handsomeness that the actor can fuel with steel or pained sweetness. Here, the actor leans toward the latter, making this Gatsby less enigmatic and more the tortured Romantic hero. Luhrmann seems to take his photographic direction from DiCaprio’s golden locks, bathing him consistently in soft cream-colored tones.
Just as golden, and with eyes one could do laps in, is Carey Mulligan’s Daisy. Mulligan is one of the screen most talented young actresses, and she can experience on-screen inner ache and conflict better than nearly anyone since Ingrid Bergman in her heyday. But while her Daisy moves us, we don’t feel as if we get to know her. Or her appeal. She’s not really coquettish, and her appeal isn’t quite as evident as it should be. She doesn’t seem the life of the party, and acts more tender and vulnerable than entitled. Perhaps the fact that we have to like Daisy if we are to relate to a film Gatsby is part of the problem; a likeable Daisy really isn’t on the page, and an unlikeable one compromises our connection with a screen Gatsby. We want to like our main characters in film, a weight that literature fortuitously doesn’t generally have to bear.
Joel Edgerton as the villainous Tom Buchanan is sufficiently coarse and brutish, but he seems to be caught somewhere between a naturalistic approach and one tending toward evil caricature. The problem of approach seems to be one shared by several of the other performers as well, especially Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher as the Wilsons. These are all solid actors, but it’s not a surprise that character definition and specificity are a bit lacking when the focus is on what’s going cinematically around them. Perhaps more attention could have been paid to what we’re seeing through the window instead of the window dressing. But with Luhrmann, the dressing is more often than not the point.
None of this is to say that the film isn’t a fun ride. But it’s not much more than that. If you’re looking for a feel of the ‘20s, forget it. If you’re looking for subtle socio-economic comment, look elsewhere, or bring your own and read it into the film.
This isn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby; it belongs to Luhrmann. It will be remembered as the Gatsby that was all dressed up—beautifully—but with nowhere to go.