After a brief interlude with The Gatekeepers, the critics and I part company once again on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The critics found the film way over-the-top, an overblown dazzling spectacle, full of style but with little substance. Leaving aside the obvious parallels between that description and the man Jay Gatsby, who builds a castle on Long Island to impress the woman he loves (who is married to another man, who has a mansion of his own across the bay) and holds the world’s wildest parties every single weekend for New York City’s wealthiest and oddest folks, the critics seem to be missing one vital piece of the equation, namely that this is not just a filming of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, but that this is Baz Luhrmann’s filming of that novel.
The Great Gatsby is a non-musical Moulin Rouge set in 1922 New York instead of 1899 Paris. This comparison may not impress some critics, but Moulin Rouge happens to be one of my favourite films of the last twenty years, so it impresses me. Yes, the first hour of The Great Gatsby is outrageous, overwhelming, frenetic, chaotic and full of insanely colourful cinematography. Buhrmann comes from the ‘no-shot-should-last-more-than-five-seconds’ school of filmmaking. Whether this is designed to appeal to the younger generations, who have some issues with attention deficit, or whether it is Luhrmann himself who has these issues, is beside the point. It’s what Luhrmann does and while it is occasionally distracting, it also fuels the sense of eye-popping wonder which lies at the heart of Luhrmann’s films.
If all of The Great Gatsby was this frenetic, I would add my voice to the critics who panned the film, but, like Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby settles down (for the most part) in the last half to focus on the tragic romantic tale of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), as husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and Daisy’s doting cousin Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the film’s narrator, watch from the side. This is a story of how the pursuit of wealth and the American Dream is both hollow and unhappy and it is told in a remarkably haunting and effective way (I have not read the novel, so cannot speak to how well it handles the source material).
The acting in The Great Gatsby is a little uneven. DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Gatsby and he continues to display his formidable talent with a stellar performance as a vulnerable man pretending to be something he is not. Tobey Maguire is solid as Gatsby’s neighbour (and Daisy’s cousin), who, against his better instincts, gets caught up in a story that quickly gets out of control and which he always knows will end badly. Carey Mulligan is never other than outstanding in all of her roles, but her talent is under-utilized here. The weakest link is Edgerton, who is unconvincing as Tom, a chronic philanderer who is appalled when his wife shows an interest in another man.
My biggest complaint with The Great Gatsby is not even mentioned by the critics. As you know, I despise 3D and will never watch a 3D film if I can watch it in 2D. The Great Gatsby was made for 3D and, in watching the 2D version, you can tell by the film’s poor colour (especially in the day-time scenes) that this was made for 3D and that this fact has negatively impacted the cinematography throughout. It could have been so much more beautiful!
And yes, there is a disappointing superficiality to the character development, limiting the emotional connection of the viewer. Nevertheless, for me, this flaw was overstated by the critics. I am giving The Great Gatsby ***+ for being a solid piece of entertainment that felt both old-fashioned and wildly original. My mug is up.