Here’s the easiest way to describe the experience of watching The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann’s spectacularly colorful reinterpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Great American Novel. Have you ever heard a DJ remix one of your favorite songs? It’s long, repetitive and kind of weird, but once in a while a portion of that great song pops out and hits you in a way that makes you think, “Hmmm….maybe this DJ kind of knows what he’s doing.” Then the thing bleeps and bloops for five more minutes, and you reconsider. When the remix ends, you think to yourself, “Well, I never need to hear that again. I’ll just listen to the original song next time.”
That’s The Great Gatsby. It’s the classic story with a bunch of stylistic flourishes designed to make it seem like a new experience, but it’s not really a better or deeper experience, just a bigger one. Every once in a while, the overwhelming excess lends itself to the story, as when the characters visit Jay Gatsby’s impossibly lavish parties. Otherwise, though, the movie feels like a classic story told in the style of a Michael Bay action thriller. It’s all fast cuts, splashy colors and loud noises, but there’s little soul to be found.
I would be willing to cut Luhrmann and his crew more slack if they were working from less prestigious source material, but The Great Gatsby hardly lacks compelling characters or challenging ideas. It has many of the trappings of a more conventional story: an observant narrator, the aloof neighbor next door, a star-crossed romance, even a big action beat in the death of Myrtle Wilson. Fitzgerald’s lyrical prose and the sly nature of the symbolism elevates the story beyond its text in a way that Luhrmann grasps at but never reaches.
This movie’s visual approach to the classic story isn’t entirely misguided. With a steadier hand at the helm, the visual bombardment works as dramatic irony, a way of suggesting through example that the most important moments in the lives of these characters occur when everyone’s telling the truth and no one’s putting on a show. The roaring thrill of the 1920’s comes across quite clearly in this movie, but the movie never knows when to stop roaring, even for a few moments. The camera’s always whirling, the scene always dissolving, the screen always pulsating, even in quiet conversations between lonely characters. It feels like motion for the sake of motion, not making any particular point but simply distracting the eye.
Unfortunately, this visual style detracts even from the movie’s biggest asset. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the man who has everything but the thing he really needs. He’s convincingly comfortable in his lavish element but simultaneously weary of the struggle to reclaim his true love. And it’s a perfect marriage of actor and character: like Gatsby, DiCaprio’s private life is something of a mystery. His professional persona is assured, but we rarely see beneath the artifice of his acclaimed performances. Whenever he’s onscreen, this movie finds the fascinating character and abstract idea at the center of Fitzgerald’s novel. Whenever he’s offscreen, the movie sags, compensating with movement, text on the screen, colorful costumes, whizzing cars, awkwardly integrated modern music and overbaked voiceover narration from Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway.
(Maguire fares rather poorly here, I thought. He’s in almost every scene but left me with no impression of Nick’s personality. The other performances in the movie are similarly shallow: Carey Mulligan seems capable of delivering a powerful turn as Daisy Buchanan, but the movie doesn’t give her opportunities to shine. Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan meanwhile, is a one-dimensional curmudgeon.)
In general, this movie works far better in theory than in practice. Case in point: Jay-Z is credited as a producer and one of the composers of the soundtrack, and his music features prominently in several key moments of the film. Ultimately, the movie never finds a balance between classic and modern. I don’t mind modern music infiltrating a period piece when it feels of a piece with the rest of the film, but watching a group of upscale ’20’s partygoers jamming to will.i.am never feels like anything other than a noble idea gone awry.
The Great Gatsby engages every sense but the heart. For all of the sound and the fury, the movie feels hollow. In a sense, it’s a long trailer for itself: lots of extravagant peaks of activity and few of the necessary valleys in between. There are moments of real visual beauty here, but Luhrmann doesn’t linger long enough for them to matter. Next time, I’ll just listen to the original song.