When Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of high school classic The Great Gatsby begins, it feels like a tour de force from a director who knows his particular style, ignored it for a film (Austraila), and aches to bring it back with more intensity than ever before. As his camera flies around New York during the Roaring Twenties to the anachronistic yet aptly matched sounds of modern hip hop, you suddenly understand why Luhrmann wanted to make this film and get the sense that this is a perfect illustration of everything Baz Luhrmann represents as a filmmaker.
But then the second act kicks in, and you're left with just a regular movie. Not a bad one, and not even a boring one, really. Just a shallow one that fails to connect on any emotional level. There are two scenes in this film where we see people begrudgingly picking up trash after a big party ends. Accidental-Metaphor-opolis.
It's worth it, though. Aside from the funny Strictly Ballroom, I've never really liked Luhrmann. His style has always felt abject and unnecessarily obnoxious to me, like his characters were all screaming in my face for no reason. His idiosyncratic flourishes are much easier to swallow here, probably because instead of having actors drown the camera, he now has 3D.
Without at doubt, Gatsby offers the best use of 3D I have seen short of Spielberg's Tintin, which wasn't even live action. I can honestly say that 2D viewers will miss out on something important if they choose that route. That's coming from someone who hates 3D so much I bought special glasses which magically turn 3D into 2D. I brought them to Gatsby but never once dared put them on. This film feels visually vibrant and alive in a way few films achieve. Part of that is just Luhrmann being Luhrmann, but another part of that, the part that makes The Great Gatsby feel almost like an amusement park ride, is the 3D.
These early scenes, so colorful and affected as to be almost sarcastic, are enough to make the film a truly amazing visual experience one probably shouldn't miss theatrically. It's just too bad the characters occupying Luhrmann's vibrant world lack life enough to match their environments.
The Great Gatsby is supposed to be one of the greatest novels ever written. These characters should have tons of depth. And yet, the portrayals here are as surface level as the party lifestyle depicted in the narrative. Tobey Maguire, somehow un-aged after all these years, does his wide-eyed thing. Carey Mulligan spends most of her role sadly looking up at dudes while nestling their shoulders. Leonardo DiCaprio alternates between smugly charming and absurdly angry. The only actor who really feels awake and exciting is Joel Edgerton as the villainous Tom Buchanan.
Again, I'm not sure how deep all this is supposed to go. This is an artificial world where every man sounds like Moe Howard and every lady sounds like Betty Boop. Billy Zane could have easily played every character. But one does get the sense that Luhrmann wants us to care about Gatsby's plight, a tall order considering how much effort he spends keeping us at arm's length from the character.
This is partly due to the lionizing of Gatsby that occurs during his set up and introduction. An obscure figure of massive wealth and host to the best parties ever, Gatsby's status is so cosmic that no one can possibly know him. As the film progresses we are told he and Maguire's Nick Carraway have become friends but must fill in the blanks of that friendship ourselves. We certainly never see them talk like friends.
The same goes for Gatsby's romance with Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan. The scene building up to their first big meeting is visually beautiful, funny, and even kind of tense. But when they actually get to talking, Luhrmann turns instead to Carraway's voice over, leaving us aware of what's going on, but unable to latch on. Maybe that's part of Luhrmann's point. Both "within and without" and all that. It fits, I guess. But it's bad for emotional connections.
It is also Carraway's job to tell us why Gatsby is a greater man than all these other rich assholes, so great that his tragic end sends Carraway to the nuthouse. But he only tells us. Luhrmann never shows us. There is one scene where Gatsby is supposed to be illustrating why he's such a dreamer and the true definition of a self-made man, but once again Carraway's voice over obstructs our view. And on top of that, DiCaprio is standing in front of perhaps the coolest wooden boat I have ever seen, so my attention was all over the place.
Not making the distinction between Gatsby and guys like Buchanan does not feel like a wise move. This is a film about people who light cigars with billion dollar bills (not even adjusted for inflation). I'm not sure how swept up I can be in their emotional plight. Gatsby's supposed to be above this, but that crucial idea does not manifest itself in any real way.
Still, while the narrative in The Great Gatsby leaves a lot to be desired, it's never all-out boring, if only because everything Leonardo DiCaprio wears inspires awe. And when Luhrmann gets cooking, things get thoroughly exciting. Had he made a film about the Harlem Renaissance like he seems to have wanted to, this might be one of my favorite films of the year. Instead it's just an okay film that I will remember with more fondness than it probably deserves.