When I was in high school, I took my grandmother to see Cats. I was excited: it was the National Tour, we drove into a nearest big city to catch it, and from what I knew it was going to knock the old gal’s socks off with its music, dancing, and frisky feline wiles. When the lights dimmed and actors in cat leotards appeared in the aisles of the theater wearing glow-in-the-dark cat-eye glasses, the delighted audience oohed and aahed. My grandmother turned to me and said, “Oh for Pete’s sake…”
I guess she was more of a dog person.
The Great Gatsby is the mega-budget film equivalent of actors in cat leotards sneaking into the audience with glowing eyes: some people are going to swoon, and others are going to turn to their grandsons and make it clear that they’d rather be getting a mammogram.
Conceived as an art deco migraine by Baz Luhrmann – the Michael Bay of jazz-hands – Gatsby explodes in 3D with all the spectacle, hyperactivity and emotional heft of a Transformers film. It’s bloated. It’s emotionally bankrupt. It’s simultaneously shiny and dull. Worst of all, it’s a love story that’s impossible to get swept up in, because it’s not actually being told – we’re expected to come to the film already understanding the core romance so that more time can be spent on ADD car chases (yes, there are several) and the promotion of a soundtrack of Beyonce singles reimagined as foxtrots.
This is a movie that grants equal literary weight to the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lana del Ray. This is a movie where characters’ accents enter the room before they do, like bad aftershave. This is a film that features a grown woman squealing in ecstasy because a man is throwing dozens of dress shirts at her.
I’m not going to bother talking about the plot – because it’s clearly not what’s important here. (If you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, you probably should before seeing this film – if not, you might walk out wondering what the hell the fuss has been about for the last 90 or so years.) What’s important here is the Spectacle of It All: the CGI mansions, the clothes (you can already buy all the major wardrobe pieces at Brooks Brothers – no joke), and the parties.
Ohhhhhh the parties – you can’t have a Baz Lurhmann movie without at least 20 minutes of extras mugging to the camera in feigned orgiastic rapture, all big eyes and theme park smiles and elbows akimbo. As authentic as a marathon Disney Main Street parade, the party scenes give one the horrifying sensation of being trapped at a theme party thrown on a cruise ship. I think the idea was to capture the decadence of the twenties, but there’s nothing remotely decadent about one exhaustingly choreographed Party City commercial for Armageddon after another.
As the eccentric Jay Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be having fun dusting off his costumes from The Aviator. DiCaprio is a dependable actor, but his take on the mysterious self-made millionaire is as schizophrenic as the film that contains it: at one turn he’s cocky and aloof, at the next he’s a shivering schoolboy who just ran out into the rain to avoid coming face-to-face with the girl he’s built a life and bought a mansion to be near. It’s all a bit silly, and undercuts the few moments of authentic emotion that he manages to squeeze in between confetti showers.
As narrator Nick Caraway, Tobey Maguire demonstrates that the Spider-Man costume was the best thing that ever happened to him. One wonders if his only direction here was to look off into the distance and try to remember what he had for breakfast. Let me demonstrate:
Carey Mulligan is very pretty as Michelle Williams. It’s an utterly thankless role – Daisy Buchanan is, after all, one of the weakest, shallowest, least empowered romantic heroines of all time, and it would take a miracle to redeem her as anything more than a fickle, spineless object of wealthy men’s desires. So they don’t.
Isla Fisher at least brings more genuine vamp to the role of Myrtle Wilson than poor Karen Black did. Not that it’s probably appropriate for the character (her “myrtle” is supposed to be a pale, ugly shadow of a “daisy”, isn’t she?), but whatever.
No, the film’s real shining star is Joel Edgerton as Tom. From the moment he appears onscreen, Edgerton is a brute, muscular force to be reckoned with – he commands every scene he’s in, and constantly seems as though he is about to either explode or mount his scene partners (including, in two very odd moments, Maguire and DiCaprio). His Tom is a lantern-jawed, flint-eyed matinee baddie in the classic vein, in spite of the fact that he could at times pass for Conan O’Brien’s hunky little bro.
To be fair, there are a few moments where things click and the film strikes a truly iconic pose or whips a suitably thrilling frenzy out of all its costume party bangles and bobs. But for a two-and-a-half-hour movie shot in 3D, these few moments are woefully far between. Is the moment when the fireworks go off behind Gatsby to the swelling of “Rhapsody in Blue” kinda neat? Sure – and I hope Lurhmann sent Woody Allen a thank-you card.
A scene where Gatsby drowns Nick’s tiny cottage in flowers to impress Daisy is at least pretty to look at in a “Bridezilla with 1-800-FLOWERS on speed dial” kind of way, and there are more billowing sheer curtains to be had than in a dozen Stevie Nicks videos:
Stand back, indeed.
It’s ironic that the story’s theme (and there is one under all the pomade and rouge) is about letting go of one’s past – because I swear this is the third time I’ve seen this movie. Aren’t Moulin Rouge! and Gatsby more or less Romeo + Juliet with different soundtracks? (I, like you, didn’t see Australia, so I can’t comment on it.) In R+J the approach was at least novel, and the story itself was fueled by youthful exuberance and naivete. In Rouge! the setting was a theater, so the pageantry at least felt somewhat organic. Here, it’s like they’ve staged a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the center ring of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. I’m not sure why Luhrmann has been branded as being such a visionary when he can only seem to make one movie over and over. Isn’t that a lack of vision?
After the party’s over and a thousand nameless men in tuxedos have swept up all the tinsel, Gatsby is as thrilling as a feature length perfume ad, and about as emotionally complex. By the end, you’re left wondering how the novel considered for generations to be one of America’s greatest could have been reduced to what is essentially a Nicholas Sparks movie in a $200 million flapper dress.