Director Baz Luhrmann is an auteur of over-the-top excess. An overload of edits. An overload of camera tricks. An overload of flashy, colorful, loud melodrama. If the first 10 minutes of "Romeo + Juliet" (which I’d still argue are unwatchable) or the first half an hour of "Moulin Rouge!" prove anything, it’s that Luhrmann has never met a frantic zoom, edit, close-up or glittering flourish he didn’t like.
No, nuance or subtly isn’t really Luhrmann’s game, but in the past, his hectic, overblown grandiosity always seemed to match the overblown grandiosity of his film’s emotions. Say what I will about the craziness of the first half of "Moulin Rouge!," but by the end, it was damn difficult not to get caught up in the movie’s big, shamelessly heart-filled doomed romance.
Now there’s his rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s high school classroom classic "The Great Gatsby," done up as the big, loud extravagant 3-D summer blockbuster I doubt Fitzgerald had in mind when he wrote his time-honored critique of the vapid lifestyles of the rich and the growing emptiness of the American dream. The end result feels a bit too much like one of Gatsby’s parties: a whole lot of razzle dazzle with a hollow emotional core.
Beneath all the sparkle and 3-D pizzazz, the story, adapted by Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce, is essentially the same from when you read it back in high school. Wide-eyed innocent Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recalls his life amongst New York City’s filthy rich during the Roaring Twenties. In one of the few glaring deviations from the book, our mentally tormented narrator tells his story upon recommendation from a psych ward doctor, a clumsy frame story that rings awfully similar to "Moulin Rouge!."
He writes glowingly about his West Egg neighbor, the mysterious, enigmatic and ever-hopeful Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). After attending one of Gatsby’s legendary parties, Nick is recruited to reconnect his host with his long-lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives across the bay in East Egg with her boisterous, philandering husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, "Zero Dark Thirty"). Their glowing green dock light taunts and eggs Gatsby on. They eventually do begin an affair, rekindling their romance from before Jay went off to World War I.
Fitzgerald’s novel, however, isn’t exactly known for a romantic streak. Thus it all comes crashing down (quite literally) as a past-obsessed Gatsby puts the pressure on Daisy to make a choice between him and Tom, and the truth about Gatsby’s fortune – and his association with the shady Meyer Wolfsheim, played by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan in a glorified cameo – gets uncovered.
"Gatsby" seems to have all of the elements that make up a typical Luhrmann-esque epic melodrama. It certainly comes with the director’s signature, written all over the film in fireworks, but the most crucial element – the big emotion that usually comes with the big style – is absent.
It’s not the fault of the star-studded cast. Maguire is right in his wheelhouse as the observant Nick, and DiCaprio, looking strangely younger than ever, uses all of his star-magnetism to make Gatsby as intriguing as Carraway makes him sound (DiCaprio detractors will likely have a field day with his accented use of "old sport," but it’s no "duly appointed federal maashaals"). Of all of Luhrmann’s visuals, the most compelling might simply be DiCaprio’s face, which wears all of his enthusiasm, hope and insecurities.
Though her inevitable reveal as a self-absorbed heartbreaker rings less true, Mulligan brings a soulful humanity to the role of Daisy. Her performance comes as a sharp contrast to Edgerton’s larger-than-life take on Tom. If this and "Moulin Rouge!" are any sign, Luhrmann likes his villains loud, mustached and cartoonish. Thankfully, Edgerton is just on the right side of hammy.
The film’s secret weapon is actually newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Daisy’s golf playing socialite friend Jordan Baker. She’s a spark of life every time she’s on screen, bringing memorable snap to some of the Fitzgerald’s zestier lines. Her response when there are no more windows to open in their balmy hotel room? "Well, we’d better telephone for an axe."
The cast is game, but they are buried underneath a pile of glossy confetti, costumes and glitzy visuals. Admittedly, Luhrmann’s vision of Fitzgerald’s book is often intoxicating, and there’s something to fascinate the eye in at least every other scene. Gatsby’s fireworks-punctuated dramatic reveal, for instance, is a perfect example of the film going over-the-top for triumphant dramatic effect.
When the style is always cranked to that level, however, everything else – the storytelling, the emotion – is lost. Luhrmann is so eager to impress that the over-caffeinated editing, attempting to cram in as much as possible, doesn’t allow any of the scenes to breathe. Combined with Jay-Z’s distracting anachronistic soundtrack, I found "The Great Gatsby" disappointingly distant.
While we’re on the topic of disappointingly distant things, let’s talk about the green light. It’s everywhere in the movie (along with Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s ominously judgmental eyes) to the point that it loses its significance. In case you forget, though, Maguire’s voiceover narration – which occasionally appears on screen because … why not; it looks cool – will blatantly tell you, and then also proceed to point out what is happening. I understand Fitzgerald’s prose is pretty brilliant, but mixed with the visuals, it’s redundant, and it gives the film the subtlety and grace of a car crash.
Speaking of, wait until Myrtle – played by Isla Fisher – meets her unfortunate demise (the book came out 90 years ago so no, that’s not a spoiler). Conducted by Baz, it’s a preposterous symphony of overblown excess.
The spectacle is both the film’s blessing and curse. It overwhelms the movie, but it also makes it occasionally mesmerizing to behold (even in 3-D). There really is no reason to wait to see "Great Gatsby" at home; its flamboyant overkill would certainly be lost on a television screen, no matter how big. But one of the great American novels deserves better than simply being a shiny distraction.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published June 30, 2015
Most bands desperately hope that their music videos will go viral. For pop rockers OK Go, at this point, it's almost expected. With a Summerfest headliner set scheduled for the Uline Warehouse on Thursday, July 2, I chatted with bassist/vocalist Tim Nordwind about the band's stories behind some of their viral sensations.
Published June 30, 2015
After traveling the globe in support of its star-making self-titled debut album, PHOX's tour is bringing them right back to where its journey started in the first place: Wisconsin. Before it heads home to Baraboo, the band is dropping by its "home away from home" of Milwaukee to play Summerfest, opening for Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros on Thursday, July 2. Before then, we talked to Matt Holmen about his own fond Big Gig memories.
Published June 29, 2015
According to, well, herself, DJ Paris Hilton is one of the top paid DJs currently working. Unfortunately, much like the "Transformers" movies, her Summerfest set was one of those situations where the amount of the money involved was inversely proportionate to the amount of skill on display. Also like the "Transformers" films, it was loud, clunky, sporadically dull despite all of the noise, unnecessarily lengthy and, by the end, left me in a little bit of pain.
Published June 28, 2015
If you've seen Disney/Pixar's latest animated hit "Inside Out," there's a good chance a certain song has been rattling around in your mind ever since. No, not that TripleDent gum jingle, but the chorus to "Lava," the brief and beautifully rendered short about a volcanic island looking for love. While the short takes plenty of inspiration from Hawaii, as it turns out, Murphy's journey to get there made a stop right here in Milwaukee.
Published June 28, 2015
As clearly proved Saturday night at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, "Shut Up And Dance" pop rockers Walk The Moon can now draw a packed house. The only question: Would they put on a show worthy of the face painted mob they gathered? Most certainly.
Published June 27, 2015
For a guy whose latest album was titled "Can't Even Do Wrong Right," a lot has gone pretty right for legendary blues rocker Elvin Bishop over the past 365 days - an award-winning new album, a place on the soundtrack of one of Hollywood's biggest hits, a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and now a headliner gig at Summerfest on Tuesday, June 30.
Published June 27, 2015
The old-school folk group Punch Brothers tried something different and set their goals somewhere new Friday night at the BMO Harris Pavilion. Lead singer and maniacal mandolinist Chris Thile said their mission was not to raise the roof, but "tap the roof," delicately nudging the ceiling with his pointer fingers. Well, congratulations Punch Brothers; you tapped the roof Friday night at Summerfest. And then some.
Published June 26, 2015
Judging by X Ambassadors brief seven-song Summerfest set at a well packed U.S. Cellular Connection Stage early Thursday evening, there's still some work to be done before the band officially earns the title of Top 40 rock heir apparent. However, the potential is most certainly there, and by the end of the rockers' setlist, it was on full display.
Published June 25, 2015
Before the indie pop duo's upcoming Summerfest gig at the Miller Lite Oasis on Sunday, June 28, OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Mates of State's Jason Hammel to chat about the band's decision to stop making LPs, his sad memory of Milwaukee and "The Rumperbutts." Yes, "The Rumperbutts."
Published June 25, 2015
Even with the raw, raspy state of lead singer Dan Smith's voice, indie rockers from across the pond Bastille put on a show Wednesday evening at the Miller Lite Oasis that played much more like Pompeii the infectiously catchy radio hit than Pompeii the infamous natural disaster.