Fearless, sexy, creative, and yet more to be admired than loved, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a well-written, well-acted and gorgeous experience for the eyes that almost perfectly juxtaposes respect for a well-loved classic with the willingness to do new and interesting things with it. Sadly, it does lack that X-factor spark of the divine fire that makes great cinema, and tends to drag for perhaps twenty minutes too long.
Much of the film’s action is narrated by Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, who, while seeking treatment for depression, writes of the doomed and ultimately tainted love affair between his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and the enigmatic, tragically optimistic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose parties attract those seeking to indulge in non-stop, near bacchic revelry and to celebrate at the altar of alcohol. Gatsby’s parties merely reflect the general frenzy of a very frenzied, drunken and violently sexed-up era that is inevitably responsible for Nick’s seeking treatment on the grounds that he has been seized by a fierce disgust of everyone and everything. It only takes the film’s duration for the audience to end up feeling exactly the same way, perhaps because we’ve finally seen the suffering, the emptiness and the desperation that clings to this lifestyle, making the living of it a permanently claustrophobic experience.
As far as acting goes, the film is miles away from being DiCaprio’s best performance, but he tackles Gatsby with his usual subtlety, insight and knowledge of character, blazing onto the screen like a firecracker, yet still leaving us wondering if we’ll ever find out who he is. Serene calm, flamboyant hospitability, hopeless love and hysterical desperation are vividly and, most importantly, believably, to be found in the same character at precisely the level of intensity we have come to expect from him. Carey Mulligan is as sweet, and eventually as punchable as her character Daisy; superficiality jostling against the desire for something more; superficiality winning the fight when ‘something more’ actually turns out to be difficult. Tobey Maguire’s performance as Nick is perhaps the most memorable despite his speaking voice being most inappropriate for extensive narration: he is perfectly balanced, his face more evocative than any amount of dialogue; he reaches lovingly for Gatsby’s light, but is never blinded by it; insightful enough both to tell Gatsby when he’s wrong and to continue to see Gatsby’s goodness when forgetting about it would have been much better for him. Joel Edgerton is utterly forgettable in his role as the utterly forgettable Tom Buchanan, and Elizabeth Debicki is mesmerising and magnetic as Jordan Baker, boasting a powerful screen presence that satisfyingly makes one constantly aware of her presence in a scene, even if her role in it is relatively unimportant.
And now for some general issues. The 3D medium accomplishes almost nothing in this film, and those expecting Baz Luhrmann to have demonstrated the correct use of the medium, as Martin Scorsese did in Hugo, will be sorely disappointed. The Great Gatsby would have been a feast for the eyes at precisely the same level without being filmed in 3D. Apart from the obvious artistry of its party and high speed driving scenes, it also produces many wonderfully artistic and achingly beautiful visual moments that appeal gloriously to the senses, notably the scene in which we meet Daisy for the first time, lounging as she does on a couch as a strong wind blows each white curtain in the room inwards, creating a sea of fresh whiteness ushered in on a breeze so strong you almost feel it on your skin. The breathtaking costumes and makeup only add to the sprawling beauty of the film’s art direction, spectres that heighten in colour and in appeal with alcohol and with dance, increasing our willingness to ignore what lies beneath them.
While the film more than meets its visual obligations, the same cannot be said for its auditory ones, its much-hyped soundtrack not putting in much of a noticeable appearance beyond the over-using of Lana Del Rey and the under-using of Florence and the Machine.
I cannot vouch for the film’s accuracy as an adaptation from the book, the last time I tried to read it having alternated between snoozing, wincing and throwing it against the wall, but the script is beautiful and unusually well-structured, giving both the story and the actors room to breathe, and to be.
A film of sweeping and kaleidoscopic beauty, but by no means a great classic in the making, The Great Gatsby is a film with a hole in its heart. It might grab your attention, entertain you or impress you, but it will not move you. This, regrettably, is its ultimate weakness.