From a sensory standpoint, The Great Gatsby is an unqualified success. Director Baz Luhrmann has once again married a modern soundtrack to a retro setting in another anachronistic move that also highlighted Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! I don’t mind the contemporary soundtrack produced by Jay-Z. In fact the hip-hop songs help heighten the excitement of the party scenes. Each soiree is a sensational wonder of Art Deco style. Digitized glitter and streamers fill the screen in a hyperactive techno dazzle display that is a visual and audible overload for the senses – a heady cocktail of debauchery, flowing booze and loud music. The camera swoops and dives amongst the glittering party people. Cuts are fast and furious. Two people talk and there are 10 edits to fortify the exchange. But the flamboyant choices give the production the emotional depth of a commercial advertising Moët & Chandon.
The pace is frantic. We’re never really offered a chance to breathe and given the dramatic time needed to understand what makes these individuals tick. That party at Gatsby’s mansion is perhaps the most invigorating set piece in the entire movie. Although our main protagonist hasn’t even appeared yet. That’s a bit of problem in a drama called The Great Gatsby. Even when Leonardo DiCaprio finally does make an appearance, he feels more like a supporting character in his own story. Daisy Buchanan, as played by Carey Mulligan, is supposed to have inspired Gatsby in his lifelong quest to win back her heart. Unfortunately the narrative never presents a compelling reason why this woman has consumed his life.
What works in a book does not always work on screen. Luhrmann’s slavish devotion to the novel hurts its cinematic chances to engage. Tobey McGuire as Nick Carraway is not the protagonist, but rather the first person narrator. He, in fact, occupies more screen time than anyone. He registers his approval, disgust, admiration to the audience on everyone. His constant narration is observing and commenting on what he sees. In the book he’s a poetic way to frame the chronicle, but in a movie, he’s a killjoy. He seems more like an interference than as someone who is helping the drama along. Baz has decided to have Nick writing the story of The Great Gatsby from inside a sanitarium while being treated for alcoholism. See F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words literally jump off the screen in 3D as Nick types them! It would be a perfect way to illustrate song lyrics for a pop music video. In this context, the static effect only serves to remind us we’re watching a dramatization from a distance. The device does nothing to draw us into the saga.
The Great Gatsby seems destined to remain one of those unadaptable books. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose never seems to translate properly to the silver screen. Filmmakers have tried. This is the fifth adaptation of the classic work of American fiction. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be The Great American Novel. It details the acquisition of the American dream and the hollow facade behind those that have acquired it. Fitzgerald beautifully captured a cross-section of American society. He delights in capturing a time and place, namely the Jazz Age of the 1920s in Long Island, New York. Director Luhrmann certainly captures the look of an era. The art direction is beyond compare. The costumes are extraordinary. It’s without a doubt a technical marvel of resplendent opulence. But the attention to superficial details comes at an expense. The spectacle IS the story. The amplified style lacks any meaningful insight that would make these people interesting. It isn’t until a heated confrontation between Gatsby and Tom in a hotel that we form any connection to them as well as Nick, Daisy and Jordan – the rest of the primary cast. Sadly it’s near the end of the film. The production seems more concerned with minutiae like the large curl in Jordan’s black hair, than in what she is saying. “I just heard the most shocking thing. It all makes sense!” the golf pro coos early on at a party before disappearing without explanation. We’re supposed to care what she’s talking about. Strangely we don’t.