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 Nov. 28, 2014
Time stops for no one. The same could be said for the Milwaukee hip-hop group The Sounds of Time, at least based on their work ethic. The trio - comprised of John Kuester (aka Kid Millions), local producer Sage Schwarm and DJ Deadbeat - began work on their sophomore album, fittingly titled "............Again," right when their first album together was released. Saturday night, however, they'll take some time to celebrate their latest work.
Published Nov. 26, 2014
King Washington - comprised of bassist Billy Lee and guitarists Tyson Kelly and George Krikes - hails from Los Angeles, so it's safe to say the recent hammering of cold winds and sleet isn't exactly something they're used to. The guys are more used to wearing petticoats and frills - their signature outfit - than heavy winter coats. Even with the weather, though, Milwaukee feels like a second home for the indie rock band.
Published Nov. 25, 2014
Bad news, Marcus Majestic employees; your Black Friday crowds are going to even bigger than usual this weekend. The Brookfield movie house is one of 30 theaters nationwide that will witness the power of a fully operational 88-second "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" trailer.
Published Nov. 24, 2014
As the creators of the Found Footage Festival, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett are no strangers to bad ideas. And they'd have it no other way. For the past decade, that's exactly what Prueher, Pickett and the Found Footage Festival have done: showing people the best of the worst cheap VHS tapes the world has to offer, videos that can often make the tape from "The Ring" seem like a blissful rom-com.
Published Nov. 23, 2014
I'd like to say that I really, really liked "Mockingjay," and that it's my favorite of the franchise. As of right now, those statements are true, but I guess I can't say for sure until next year when the story is finally allowed to end.
Published Nov. 20, 2014
The trailer for "Pitch Perfect 2" came out this morning. The original cast - Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, etc. - is all here, as well as a few new faces. Among those new faces, however, is one very familiar to sports fans: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews - flanked on both sides by fellow Packers TJ Lang, Josh Sitton, Don Barclay and David Bakhtiari.
Published Nov. 19, 2014
In case there was a question about this matter, "Dumb and Dumber To" is - for lack of a better word - dumb. Very dumb. There's entertainment where you turn your brain off, and then there's this, where maybe it's best if you leave your brain out of the theater altogether just in case its rollicking, unrepentant stupidity is somehow contagious. But did I laugh? Yes.
Published Nov. 17, 2014
They aren't old enough to legally smoke, drink or even drive. If "This Is Spinal Tap" was in theaters, they wouldn't be able to see it without their parents, and if you add together the ages of all five band members, the quintet's combined age (63) would still be younger than Sir Paul McCartney (72). But while most kids' dreams of rock glory only go as far as that - dreams - Mad RED Kat has already started acting on its aspirations, forming a band and playing gigs across the city.
Published Nov. 17, 2014
Much like Stewart's incredibly influential television show, "Rosewater" is about navigating through troubling political times, topics and outrages with lightness, humor and humanity. And for the most part, the funnyman does a respectable job with his first go-around, his familiarity with the melding of politics and humor mostly making up for his unfamiliarity with writing and directing for the big screen.
Published Nov. 15, 2014
When most people think of "Harvey," their minds probably jump to the classic 1950 Oscar-winning Jimmy Stewart film. But before Stewart got a crack at it, the story of Elwood P. Dowd and his pooka started out on stage. Now, it's returning to its origins with a run at the Milwaukee Rep starting Tuesday, Nov. 18 in the Quadracci Powerhouse.