Baz Luhrmann is the perfect director for a film about the roaring 20’s, but is he the right director for The Great Gatsby, a much praised American literary masterpiece? Known for ravishing visuals and a lack of subtlety, Luhrmann is one of the few directors who can visually capture the gluttonous behavior found in America during the early twentieth century. Yet, considering that most of Luhrmann’s films are bombastic exercises in excess, fans of The Great Gatsby had every reason to worry about their beloved tale. Now, I can’t say whether The Great Gatsby succeeds as an adaptation. Per usual, my innate ability to avoid literature of all kinds limits my view on such a subject. Regardless, The Great Gatsby is a film of two halves. The first half, which boasts enough confetti, kinetic music and fireworks to make you feel like you’re at a concert, permeates strongly off the screen but its sizzle quickly dissipates into cumbersome scenes and a broken narrative structure. On the other hand, the second half features a collection of impressive scenes, all of which rush to an ending that elicits a rather strong emotional response, which, if I’m being honest, is only achieved because Luhrmann hired a bevy of terrific actors.
Our invitation into Luhrmann’s colorfully disjointed film is Nick Carraway, a bond salesman played by the wide-eyed Tobey Maguire. Looking for his piece of the American dream, Carraway ends up renting a house in an affluent Long Island area. Sitting next door to Carraway’s humble abode is an immensely foreboding mansion that belongs to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby, for all of his party throwing antics, is like a ghost; he throws massive parties in his spacious house, but he seemingly floats amidst the thrill seekers, with only few being able to register his presence. Things change though when Nick receives a personal invitation to one of Mr Gatsby’s raging parties. One of the world’s most elusive men has extended an open invitation to a relative pissant. Uneasiness, as well as curiosity overwhelms Nick as his connection with Mr. Gatsby injects him into the realm of upper class. Soon enough, we’re introduced to Gatsby’s true intentions: reclaiming the heart of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s well off cousin. It’s at this point that our story turns more intimate, more resonant, and more tragic. And it’s at this point that the actors and the story over power Luhrmann’s style. The parties melt away, the lights dim, and clouds, ready to burst open with an oppressive rain, thicken in the sky.
In order to reach the film’s fantastic ending, we must endure tedious, overstuffed party scenes that are awe-inspiring on the first go around, but become vapid scenes of insignificance and indulgence when revisited. Yes, thematically speaking, there is a level of superficiality boiling under the surface of every party scene, but Luhrmann’s continuous stressing of the point renders it a tedious act. It’s not an indistinguishable theme by any stretch of the imagination, so it seems senseless for Luhrmann to constantly shoot confetti into our face and demonstratively pour booze down our gullets. Because of this, The Great Gatsby feels overbearingly long once the credits roll. With that being said, Luhrmann, in association with his production designer, has certainly captured this gilded age with a great deal of panache and confidence, and at times an aching beauty seeps from the frames. One scene demonstrating Luhrmann at his best revolves around Daisy and Gatsby’s “first” meeting together. In a room filled wall to wall with white flowers, Luhrmann captures a magical moment between his characters that’s comical, romantic, and deeply sincere. Or, in other words, it’s the perfect marriage between rich content and visual grandstanding.
Outside of Luhrmann finding an equilibrium between style and content, the scene is hammered home by the terrific performances from Mulligan and DiCaprio, both of which access their character’s vulnerabilities and love borne fears without hesitation. DiCaprio has never been as dapper or as mysterious in a film as he is here. As the film nears its end, and all of Gatsby’s mysteries begin to dissolve, DiCaprio gives us a complicated man who is at once hopeful and hopeless. Mulligan, with her angelic beauty, replicates the same emotional turmoil as DiCaprio, with both of their characters spinning out of control into a damning ending. One moment, Mulligan draws us and Gatsby in with her infectious warmth; in another she pushes us back with a frigid glare. The role of Daisy is thankless, and Mulligan impressively delivers a wreck of a character. Supplementing the work of DiCaprio and Mulligan is Tobey Maguire, Isla Fischer and Joel Edgerton, the last of which delivers a fine performance in his own right. Without the thunderous presence of the actors, The Great Gatsby would’ve choked on Luhrmann’s incessant need for spectacle and reveling in the pompous world of the rich. Fortunately for Luhrmann, the actors strip down his glossy production and find a beating heart; the wealth in the socially poor.