Before I begin this review, I would first like to say that while I have read F Scott Fitzgerald’s book, it was some years ago, and the finer details of the plot and meaning have escaped me since. As such, I am going to avoid comparing this movie to the book and simply take it on its own terms.
Baz Lurhmann is not a bad director. If you can handle his music-video aesthetic and his choppy, frenetic editing style, then his films are actually quite good, particularly Moulin Rouge, one of my favourite musicals of the last decade. His decision to take on The Great Gatsby was an interesting one. The book is probably one of the most famous ever written, and you’d be hard pushed to find someone who hadn’t heard of it, let alone know something of its tale of 1930s partying, love, fortune and the enigmatic Gatsby. We’ve seen Luhrmann take on classic literature before, to questionable quality (I remain unconvinced by Romeo+Juliet, but it almost works), and failure or success, this film was always going to be an interesting one.
In short, for me it was an absolute failure.
The film does not begin well. Starting with a pre-requisite narrative framing device (in this case, Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway being treated at a sanatorium for alcoholism). We can tell immediately the film is carrying extra baggage that needn’t be there. The following sequence, in which we get to know Carraway and the assorted characters has some of the worst editing I have seen in recent memory. Jaunty camera angles are thrown about with giddy abandon and characters have an annoying habit of changing their position in-between shots; from the doorway, to the room, to the window, to the table, and so on.
Lurhmann is known for this style, and normally I can embrace it, but here it was too much, making Transformers look like a Tarkvosky movie. This was most notable in the sequence where we are introduced to the Buchanan’s and Jordan Baker, where I found myself seriously losing my concentration. The film luckily (kinda) sorts itself out on the editing front afterwards, but it never fully shakes the off-putting style it starts with.
The performances were of a variable quality throughout. DiCaprio as Gatsby puts in a good, if slightly subdued performance, that is somewhat hampered by the fact that the audience never really sees what everyone else in the film sees in him. When Maguire tells us about his perfect smile, for example, all we really see is a normal smile.
DiCaprio is a handsome man, but the tendency of the film to elevate him to godlike status hampers the character somewhat. Maguire was particularly weak, coming across as awkward, unfitting, and uncomfortable with his role and the people surrounding him. We never believe that he has been drawn into this immoral world, and we never believe he has become disillusioned with it in the unnecessary framing scenes.
Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki was excellent as Jordan Baker, however, and Joel Edgerton was effective as Tom Buchanan. Carey Mulligan was slightly bland as Daisy Buchanan, which is a great shame.
The film is, to all intents and purposes, just a mess. The selling point of the film, the soundtrack is, frankly, awful, and the general sound editing of the film meant everything was far, far too loud -it resembled a blitzkrieg. The film also appears to take on far too much; it is both about Gatsby and Carraway when really one feels it could have settled for just one of these characters, preferably Gatsby. It is, despite the frantic editing, quite a baggy film, and my interest seriously wandered in the protracted final third.
Most of all, however, I wasn’t engaged at all, and found it incredibly hard to care about anyone. Stuff happened and things went wrong and the characters went about their business, but a huge glossy faÃ§ade hanging over the film seriously obstructed any true emotional attachment. And that, for me, was the greatest tragedy of all.