To call Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby a great movie would be akin to saying that Microsoft’s new X-Box One is a revolutionary new console. Sure, the casing has been given a sleek new design and comes with improved specifications such as an 8-core CPU and a 500 GB hard drive, but the outer appearance and the technical aspects, the machine leaves a lot to be desired. The machine requires Kinect in order to play any game, even if the game in question doesn’t use the movement sensor, Microsoft are heavily promoting internet use and connectivity so while it may not strictly need to be connected at all times most games will probably make use of the function which will in turn require constant internet connection. Finally, there is a lot of confusing discussion about used game fees which basically seems to boil down to paying sticker price to play a used game unless someone is using your account or through Microsoft approved online trading, the specific details of which are still to come.
Likewise, The Great Gatsby is very much all style and no substance. Luhrmann certainly seems to enjoy making a spectacle out of F Scott Fitzgerald’s work but tends to get carried away. For instance, when Nick Carraway, played here by Toby Maguire, first attends Gatsby’s party there is some eccentric loose descendent of Beethoven playing on a organ high above the party, while dancers shake and jive on stages and then just as Nick meets Gatsby finally it is to the backdrop of a long and powerful firework display like a parody of a meet cute in a Romcom. That isn’t to say that it isn’t impressive but rather that the Luhrmann moves from one spectacle to the next without really allowing any of it to sink it.
In the novel the parties are just as rambunctious. There are multiple rounds of drinks, two suppers, a full orchestra, a celebrated tenor and the playing of a famed Jazz composition. What is clear, however, is that Luhrmann has read the book but not quite understood that all of the above is merely a backdrop to Gatsby. He fires the party at us in massive sweeping images, trying to encompass the atmosphere of the party but in doing so loses the fluid movement and ethereal feeling of Fitzgerald’s words. Gatsby’s parties were like a wonder dream in the novel but Luhrmann presents them as cars would be presented in Fast and Furious 6. There is a clear appreciation for the subject but little subtlety.
Leondaro DiCaprio on the other hand helps to bring Jay Gatsby to life. The same boyish charm that made him charismatic and enigmatic as Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can presents itself again. It is a pity though that the screenplay and direction aren’t as powerful to create the same compelling drama in this film. Despite being hampered by Luhrmann’s narrow, attention deficient disordered direction, DiCaprio still manages to bring some of the same mystery and poise awarded to Gatsby in the novel. Some have suggested that DiCaprio will get an Oscar nomination for this role. While it is entirely possible that he will get a nomination I would be extremely surprised if he won. He was good but this is far from his best work.
The only other character that really did justice to their character is likely the least known. Elizabeth Debicki hasn’t been in very much at all but her performance as Jordan Baker is just as frivolous and bubbly and confident as the character warrants. She is nothing short of superb and for an unknown actor that really is quite terrific. Amitabh Bachchan is similarly unknown, at least outside of India, but also manages to be more sinister in two lines of dialogue compared the to the lack of emotion most of the cast can squeeze out of the entire movie. The flighty nature of the film means that most of Fitzgerald’s significance seeps out of his words.
Of the other cast members there is little to be said. I am not Carey Mulligan’s biggest fan but she has impressed me on occasion, such as in Steve McQueen’s Shame, alongside Michael Fassbender. However, I think she acted better in the one episode of Doctor Who, Blink, than in this entire movie. Again, I feel that some of that failure can be contributed to Luhrmann not quite understanding the source material. Daisy appears rather innocent in the film and it is easy to sympathise with her as she seeks solace in an old flame because her husband is having affairs. But that characterisation lacks the same complexity of Daisy from the novel that married Tom to gain independence from her family and seemed on the verge of an affair before Gatsby is even introduced. Luhrmann appears to touch on these aspects when Gatsby is told that Daisy cares about money and that she just wants to run away but in an ideal of example of the film’s downfall, he fails to deliver these aspects in any real depth.
The rest of the characters are very flat. Nick is just a fly on the wall, as is his character from the novel, but not even the added dream of being a writer can make him more interesting. Tom is just a bully and Isla Fisher is completely wasted as Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle’s death in the novel is intended to signify the end of the Jazz Age, the cut off of a decade long party but Luhrmann manages to turn even that into a spectacle. Myrtle’s body is flung like a rag doll across the sky, falling like a feather to the backdrop of the so called eyes of God, an advert for an optometrist.
The entire film feels flung together as Luhrmann speeds from one scene to the next and in doing so makes adapts a strange and interesting social commentary on over indulgence into a dull film that doesn’t even seem to want to say anything about anything. Even each track from the mediocre soundtrack is given the briefest play before the next song is shoved into the background. Only on two occasions does the film really pause to give the actors time to really convey meaning to each other and the audience and on both occasions it is between Nick and Gatsby. Arguably, Gatsby is the only character that deserves such moments of importance and emotion but given the source material there are so many more occasions for all of the characters to come across with more depth and significance. Instead, Luhrmann chooses absolute style and brass unrelenting spectacle over any substance or meaning at all.