Stylish ‘Gatsby’ Oversells the Drama

Stylish ‘Gatsby’ Oversells the Drama

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While people continue to lob the “style over substance” critique at Baz Luhrmann, it should be said that the director’s typically flamboyant presentation is not what is wrong with his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Ardent supporters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel might scoff at the idea of protagonist Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) waxing poetic amid 3-D images of a computer-generated Manhattan skyline and Jay-Z beats hammering on the soundtrack, but the approach is not inherently flawed.

The same hallmarks that invigorated or irritated viewers of Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!” are present here: hyper-kinetic editing, histrionic acting and loads of characters amassing for debauchery. However, such ensigns serve the movie well in its staging of New York City in the early 1920’s. Tawdry hotel parties and bustling speakeasies give the film its tempo, but the grandeur doesn’t come until Nick visits a spectacular party thrown on Long Island by the mysterious J. Gatsby. Here, Lurhmann’s camera moves like a hummingbird through the halls of the mansion and its grounds, casting erratic glances at upper-crusters losing themselves to music and drink. Gatsby’s entrance is a showstopper, and it’s immediately clear that Leonardo DiCaprio has the character pegged. DiCaprio finds just the right note for Gatsby: confident and warm, but anchored by melancholy.

Although the other members of the main cast are overshadowed by DiCaprio, they fill their roles aptly. Carey Mulligan makes a lovely, if perhaps too pitiable, Daisy Buchannan; Joel Edgerton gives a strong turn as Tom Buchannan; and Maguire is appropriately pensive in the role of Nick.

With the spectacle and cast proving effective, it’s dismaying that the writing falters so considerably. Even more dismaying is that it is often Fitzgerald’s own words that work against the movie. Nick narrates the film in voice-over, often directly quoting chunks of the novel. Luhrmann uses this tactic presumably so that the audience can bask in Fitzgerald’s famous prose, but the effect is at best jarring (in instances when the words actually appear on the screen) and at worst condescending when Nick explains something that already is perfectly obvious from the actors’ performances. Lurhmann doesn’t miss an opportunity to over-explain someone’s motivation or audibly observe something that viewers likely would have noticed anyway. He also wears Fitzgerald’s symbolism down to a nub, namely the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and the billboard showing the eyes of Optometrist T.J. Eckleberg. Both are shown so many times in the film that they lose their impact and instead become just two more of Luhrmann’s 3-D curiosities.

The overall result is cinematic hand-holding, or a live-action Cliffs Notes version of the book that will one day help high school students who don’t want to suffer through multi-clausal sentences. Apparently, Luhrmann’s fierce love of the novel has gotten in the way of his judgment of how to best adapt the story. What works in a first-person, intimately hewed novel about classism does not necessarily work in a multi-view cacophony of confetti and melodrama. The director should have been willing to divorce himself from the source material and create something that stands on its own. He should have used Fitzgerald’s words as a launching pad, not a life raft. In hindsight, more Jay-Z and less Fitzgerald was probably the way to go, especially when the look in DiCaprio’s eyes says everything worth saying.

The Great Gatsby (Lurhmann, 2013) Grade: C