'The Great Gatsby': Leo languishes under Luhrmann's grandiosity
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"He was the single most hopeful person I ever met," narrator Nick Carraway observes of the title character of "The Great Gatsby" early on in the movie. In the spirit of that pronouncement (which is not found in the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel on which this picture is based), I'll open my comments on an optimistic note and say that "Gatsby" is a far more surefooted, confident movie than was "Australia," the prior feature directed by iconoclastic cinematic showman Baz Luhrmann being a rather badly muddled cattle stampede and train wreck and what have you. So there's that. But that is, pretty much, it for the good news, unless of course you're really into 3-D, elaborate production design and purposefully anachronistic use of music, the latter two of which are already hallmarks of Baz Luhrmann's work.
The idea of the purposefully gonzo Luhrmann -- who made big impressions and arguably even scored some genuine artistic dividends by shaking up Shakespeare and 19th-century Paris with his kitchen-sink visions of "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge" -- handling the more contemplative Fitzgerald work, Jazz Age backdrop or no Jazz Age backdrop, no doubt seems sacrilegious to some. Which might actually delight Luhrmann. But in the end it doesn't matter: The lifelessness of this "Gatsby" eventually has little to do with the movie's perspective on Fitzgerald's work.
That perspective is of course more romantic than ironical, and also more than a little dumb. The scene in which self-made (sort of) mogul Gatsby shows off his shirts to lost-then-found love Daisy Buchanan is, in Fitzgerald's book, more than a little sad, what with the character's transparent desperation to please. In Luhrmann's movie, with pretty people Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan playing dress-up, and all the colors and fabrics flying around, and everyone's confidence in how attractive it all is, well, the takeaway is unavoidably: Damn, Gatsby has some nice shirts, and a whole lot of them too.
As the kids say, whatever. Fitzgerald was more for the elegantly turned phrase illuminating the possibly too-obvious symbol rather than the verbal bullfighter's pierce. So, it's understandable that Hollywood adaptations of his work would misapprehend the softer side as being the meat of the matter; and that was in fact the case with the far more sober "Gatsby" adaptation made in 1974 and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
Much more disturbing than the fact that this fails as an adaptation is how flat "Gatsby" falls on its own Luhrmann-defined terms. The Baz bag of tricks is getting kind of tired. The sight of flappers dancing to Jay-Z/Kanye jams isn't really that groundbreaking. (Jay-Z is an executive producer on this picture, incidentally.) Having long, white, diaphanous curtains windswept across a cavernous room as you introduce your leading lady is more "yeah, we get it" stuff. (One character remarks to Daisy that she looks like she "could be on the cover of Vogue," and, sure enough, this month Carey Mulligan IS on the cover of Vogue, and honestly the metatextual marketing of this movie is maybe the most interesting thing about it.) As for the writing, well, that line put in the mouth of Nick pretty much exemplifies what happens when the text deviates from Fitzgerald's. The device of making the Gatsby story a therapy exercise that Nick (Tobey Maguire, never more sallow) writes while drying out in the bughouse seems an amusingly Salinger-esque little flourish, at least while one is still feeling hopeful; eventually one recognizes it as dippy. Also dippy: Making Tom Buchanan even more loathsome than he was in the novel by giving him some racism to mouth, the coeval of all the African-American extras (no actual characters, mind you) as angelic presences, and other strivings for "relevance" and contemporary who-knows-what ("You like to watch. I remember that from college," Tom says to Nick in prelude to a potential orgy -- now there's some Jazz Age TMI).
Of course it is all very pretty (in no other adaptation of "Gatsby" has that green light been quite so, well, green), and the 3-D is kind of impressive and it's pretty loud. It's also irritating and tedious and leaden -- you'd never imagine that the climactic Plaza Hotel scene could be quite such a dramatic dud until you watch this one sink, and sink -- and wastes what's actually a not uninteresting performance by DiCaprio in the title role. DiCaprio begins his Gatsby portrayal with the Cheshire Cat smile of Orson Welles' Harry Lime in "The Third Man" but gradually morphs into the harried, romantically frustrated idealism of Joseph Cotten's Jed Leland in "Citizen Kane." But it's largely for naught, as his efforts are swallowed up by Luhrmann's grandiosity, which lumbers like a stuck bulldozer, never even coming close to the condition of a boat against the current.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.