Maybe the next time Australian director Baz Luhrmann wants to turn a classic American novel into his brand of big-screen eye candy, he should try Moby-Dick. Thats because all of his effort to get The Great Gatsby on film at the cost of a reported $127 million echoes the theme of that whale story: a man obsessed with using all of the artistic harpoons in his arsenal to land the big one and coming up, if not empty, then short of the mark.
Yet Luhrmanns highly stylized Gatsby Hollywoods fifth attempt to turn F. Scott Fitzgeralds perennial high-school homework assignment into a theatrical film or telemovie is always visually resplendent. For Luhrmann, style is substance, as he proved to great effect in his 1996 update of Romeo and Juliet. Its just too bad that this Gatsby, unlike his fling with Shakespeare, is so emotionally inert that theres little beneath the gleaming surface.
By now, everyone knows the story: Its the roaring 20s and young, impressionable Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to Long Island to find himself the neighbor of a reclusive millionaire: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The only thing most people know about Gatsby is that he throws lavish parties, and its at one of these that Carraway makes the big mans acquaintance and becomes embroiled in his life which isnt quite as grand as the all the fireworks, champagne, shiny roadsters and jazz (here rendered with a hip-hop swing) make it out to be.
Gatsby is hopelessly in love with his neighbor across the bay, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Nicks cousin. Trouble is shes married to an oafish, old-money snob, Tom (Joel Edgerton). So Nick, who narrates the film as a long flashback, has a front-row seat to the inevitable meltdown.
Luhrmann puts so much emphasis on postmodern pizzazz and distancing artifice the anachronistic music, the needless use of 3-D that much of the humanity gets buried, especially in the first half of the film. His casting doesnt help. DiCaprio, although he tries mightily, doesnt possess the physical gravitas that someone as charismatic as Gatsby should have. And Maguire simply lacks the range to make Nick believable. The fact that theres no heat from the romantic flame thats supposed to be kindled when Gatsby and Daisy are together only underscores the problem.
Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty) does his best to bring some muscular energy to the role of Tom, and the film improves in the less visually busy second half where Luhrmann gives his actors room to breathe.
Yet if the book can be read as a treatise on America and the shimmering mirage of the American dream, little of that comes through in the film.
Still, there are some wonderfully staged moments: Gatsbys entrance to fireworks and Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue near the beginning, his plunge into a pool near the end, and all those Busby Berkeley-meets-P. Diddy parties in between.
The perfectionist Luhrmann who has only made five feature-length films in 21 years captures the exterior excesses of Gatsbys life but overlooks the interior torment that fuels them. Without the latter, Gatsby is less a film and more of a salute to production design.