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The Great Gatsby (2013) mistakes excess for extravagence

October 25, 2013
Photo Credit: The Great Gatsby / Warner Bros Pictures
When we think of the jazz era, our modern lenses imagine non-stop frantic energy. An era of shorter skirts, neon lights, rebellion against banned alcohol, and an endless parade of parties and making big dough, the sky was the limit. Transforming the classic tale of a penniless man reborn into a gazillionaire to the silver screen, you go big or you go home.

That last line. I think that's how we think of director Baz Luhrmann. With a theatrical eye for vibrant storytelling like Moulin Rouge and Australia, he's all about putting on a show with his characters and stories. Sometimes his vision can be a dreamy fantasy but also blur the line of campy. In an adaptation of one of literature's timeless novels about one of the most extravagant eras in history, Luhrmann definitely goes all the way.

With Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway comes an adaptation of one of the great American novels, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A young man who becomes enthralled by a neighbor of exorbitant wealth and stature, Jay Gatsby.

The Manhattan air whispers and carries the name of Jay Gatsby. He is Carraway's entire world as he watches people line up outside Gatsby's house for miles to attend his extravagant parties. But nobody knows the identity of the dapper Goliath hiding inside the monstrous castle and supreme wealth. The elaborate myth of his prestige encompasses all circles. Who is he?

Having no preconceived stance on who should portray Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio like wine only seems to get better with age. When he emerges out of the fog and into our sight as Gatsby, he is the man who came from nothing and strives from his imagination; optimistic, hopeful, delusional, dangerous. He is the successful businessman behind the curtain who came from nothing and solely creates a new life from his imagination in the hopes of catching the heart of his one true love.

DiCaprio brings to the screen the legendary and iconic movement of Gatsby that has permeated throughout the years. Our ideas of his softness, promises of fulfillment, regret, terror, a man who is losing that one step ahead of creation come to life through DiCaprio.

Having not seen the other most revered adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974), but being a mild fan of Robert Redford, his interpretation feels like Gatsby would be a cynical realist when he needs to be channeled as a passionately confused dreamer not exactly reaching naivety. An actor who "delivered the hopeless romantic, completely obsessed wacko, and untrustworthy millionaire clinging to wealth", as DiCaprio describes his character. Gatsby and the 1920s era only seemed to be skyrocketing upwards but inevitably crashes. He makes the film a ride of hopefulness driven by an empty void. DiCaprio delivers.

This is not to say that the rest of the cast is pitiful, but everyone seems to fall in their place as expected. As the lead character and focus of the film, Maguire doesn't necessarily command the screen but dwells into the voice of Carraway; the man of practicality who is unexpectedly thrown into the waste bin of big city chaos. We don't find horrible performances by the rest of the cast with Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, and Joel Edgerton; they are seamless and fit in place.

Except for Carey Mulligan. Gatsby is in love with the idea of a woman Daisy, who once was a beautiful fool. Gatsby's fantasy world is built and penetrated by his fears of being penniless and unloved. The entire film depends on this tragic romance.

Yet, Mulligan is flat. The flapper girls in Luhrmann's Great Gatsby are uninteresting, catty, and moving ahead in the world with booze and men. But they aren't without energy. Her character is purely vapid but Mulligan runs on empty. Her voice is velvety smooth and peppy, but there's nothing more layered about her performance. The scenes between Daisy and Gatsby where he is wiping away her tears and trying to persuade her to stay with him over her sleazy cheating husband, his fears he won't be able to swoon her is palpable...but Daisy just sorta stands there like a stiff board. Sadly, the epic love between Gatsby and Daisy is left on DiCaprio's shoulders. From his perspective, it's hard to see what made Daisy worth loving.

Luhrmann is a jack of showy ideas but not necessarily a master of effortlessly bringing them to film. He creates spectacularly dreamy and bold worlds. And The Great Gatsby is no different.

The director can pack a punch with the physicality of his worlds yet doesn't overwhelm us with the inevitable rise and fall of Gatsby and the 1920s. His characters and casts are vibrant and bigger than life. I loved the over the top parties in Gatsby's' mountainous castle. The incorporation of rap and hip-hop to the 1920s excitement was a great mix of modernity more so than other hyped-up tracks featuring Florence and the Machine and Beyonce.

Every scene dashes with glamor and glitz from costumes to scenery. But when it comes to the layout of scenes and characters, Luhrmann can blur between reality and campy. For every scene where Maguire or another actor reaches a moment of honesty in their acting, Luhrmann throws us out of the moment with a line or look of forced faux emotion. For every authentic set, we immerse ourselves into the 1920s, it was matched with a dizzying aerial sweeping of CGI. He tries too hard to catapult the energy of the jazz age at every turn. Some ideas were a hit, others were a miss.

With a flashforward filled beginning building into a strong second act and a morbid finale, this isn't a perfect adaptation. The energy didn't inspire me to jump up and do the Charleston, but what Luhrmann tries to deliver is entertaining. Like Jay Gatsby, his imagination is limitless. For every idea Luhrmann greenlights, there are a few he should have stopped at the conception stage. I can't necessarily blame him for all the ideas that didn't seamlessly translate to screen because at least when he goes, he goes big Old Sport.

Rating: ★
Have you seen The Great Gatsby? What did you think?

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