Hollow ‘The Great Gatsby’ Mistakes Glitz For Passion

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – There’s a scene in “The Great Gatsby” in which Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is gleefully throwing multi-colored clothes down upon a smiling, spinning Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). While she seems happy at first, she ends up covered in colored fabric and crying. I knew how she felt. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic smothers its subject matter in such a stylish manner that it loses the passion of its story. It’s not overkill. I would have liked crazy, passionate, powerful overkill such as Luhrmann employed in his spectacular “Moulin Rouge!,” one of my favorite movies of the ‘00s (for the record, lest you think I’m simply anti-Baz like some critics, I’m a fan of “Strictly Ballroom” and “Romeo + Juliet” as well). This isn’t overkill in the way the term is typically used. It’s just a repetitive kill, kill, kill, until the effect becomes numbing. Like being buried in a cavalcade of colorful fabric.

A horrendously miscast and wooden Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, a tough part to adapt since the character is such an observer to most of the emotion and passion of the piece, keeping us at a distance from a story that needs fire and grit instead of the cool style given it by Luhrmann. We’ll get back to that. First, the plot. Nick moves in next door to the most popular guy in town, a multi-millionaire known only by one name and who most of his party goers has never even met. Spoken about in hushed tones as a mysterious playboy, Gatsby skulks around his lavish affairs, which Nick learns he has been hosting just to try and entice lost love Daisy Buchanan back into his life.

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Nick’s connection to Daisy runs deeper than the past she shares with his new neighbor. Nick happens to be Daisy’s second cousin and the two are intertwined again when Nick goes gallivanting in New York City with Daisy’s philandering husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Tom is sleeping with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the wife of gas station owner George (Jason Clarke). The partying Tom & Myrtle introduce Nick to a world of booze and open his eyes up to the darker side of the lives of beautiful people. Innocent Nick falls further into the web of high society with low morality when he learns of his new buddy Gatsby’s past and his hope for a future with Daisy.

Can we rewrite the past? Can we correct past mistakes as if they never happened while avoiding simply making the same errors over and over again? F. Scott Fitzgerald gives Luhrmann fascinating, complex themes with which to play in one of the greatest narratives of the 20th century. However, most of the themes that Fitzgerald played with in his novel were done in descriptive prose instead of actual plotting. When you give someone like Luhrmann a story relatively light on plot and tell him to transform those internal narratives into external imagery, he’s like a kid in a candy store. And the sugar rush isn’t as much fun as you might think.

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

The problem with “The Great Gatsby” is simple and possibly predictable – it’s all surface. The lavish parties, the beautiful sets, the gorgeous costume design – it hides a script and, more importantly, direction of the ensemble that never gets under the skin of most of these characters. We never get to know Nick, Daisy is portrayed as more of a mystery than ever before, Tom is a caricature (although Edgerton goes a long way to add dimensionality in later scenes), and supporting characters feel about as three-dimensional as the fireworks that explode at one of Gatsby’s parties. The entire world in which these characters exist feels like a cartoon, a back lot, a computer game — whatever metaphor you want to use for a place that doesn’t feel REAL. And the lack of depth in the world in which Gatsby & Daisy live makes for a lack of depth in their story. Their romance has all the passion of a perfume commercial.

So why not grade lower? Because I’ll be damned if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t do absolutely everything he can to pull at the corners of this two-dimensional film and add a third dimension. From the minute he comes on-screen, the film improves notably, in no small part because he reminds one that he simply looks and moves like a movie star and Jay Gatsby was a role designed for a movie star. Leo has that kind of old-fashioned, indefinable screen presence that can’t be taught, not unlike Paul Newman or Robert Redford. He owns the screen. And it’s not mere looks or charisma. He truly does great work here, bringing such emotion to later scenes that he nearly justifies seeing the movie on his own. He’s EASILY the best thing about “The Great Gatsby.”

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

I wanted to love “The Great Gatsby.” I’m a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s passionate, romantic view of cinema. Even a misfire like “Australia” was a mess because Luhrmann tried to make too many movies at one time, stuffing them all into a bloated epic. It was an error of passionate moviemaking. This is the first time in Luhrmann’s career that I’ve felt like the style, the glitz, the glamour were actually hiding a lack of depth instead of pushing forward the passionate vision of the man behind it. Luhrmann feels lost at one of Gatsby’s parties, enjoying the many captivating sights and sounds but unable to tell us a thing about the man who hosts it.

“The Great Gatsby” stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, and Isla Fisher. It was written by Baz Lurhmann & Craig Pearce and directed by Luhrmann. It opens on May 10, 2013.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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