It took five years after the disaster which was Australia for writer/director Baz Luhrmann to be allowed to make a feature film again. Sadly, it was this film. I kid, but the sad truth is Australia was an amazingly bad trainwreck that deserved every bit of scorn it earned from critics and audiences alike. Even sadder is the fact that Australia might actually be a better film than the writer/director’s current adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel which takes literary classic and grinds it down into dime store romance novel full of the director’s trademark spectacle, garish production design, and style (complete with inappropriate time-period music), resulting in dreadful boring film.
The Great Gatsby isn’t horrifically bad. It’s not the kind of truly wretched film that would rise my ire and pitchfork for a march on the director’s metaphorical castle. Almost as troubling, Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby is an emotionally stunted and empty experience that often tells us, but never shows us, why we should care for these characters or the tragic events in which they find themselves trapped.
As bad as Australia was, and it was pretty wretched, it was a film you could groan your way through while still appreciating the work that went into the inept sprawling epic. Disjointed? Rushed? Ill-conceived? A tonal nightmare? Pandering? Sure, but at least it wasn’t boring (which is more than I can say for self-indulgent wankery that Luhrmann offers audiences with Gatsby).
Our story is told mostly (although the film deviates when necessary) through flashbacks from the perspective of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a bonds trader of the Roaring Twenties by profession, who is in the middle of a complete nervous breakdown as the movie opens. Maguire’s Carraway is an empty vessel, a blank slate to introduce us to the world of the most exciting man Carraway ever encountered – millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Gatsby is the type of man who despite throwing lavish parties and having connections all over the city no one really knows (except of course when the plot needs them to know, and then they do). It takes a good half-hour for Carraway to finally meet his aloof next-door neighbor and discover what exactly the charming fellow need from him. Things certainly pick up at this point as the movie focuses on the friendship of the pair and Gatsby’s feelings for Carraway’s married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) whom he dated briefly before his time in the war.
Much like Carraway, the audience has no real stake in Gatsby’s attempt to steal Daisy away from her philandering husband (Joel Edgerton). At times the director teases feelings deeper than friendship between Carraway and Gatsby through long looks, but these are left mostly to the audience’s imagination as Gatsby’s love is only for Daisy, and Carraway’s adoration of his new friend is completely forgotten any time he comes near Elizabeth Debicki‘s character (who to be honest is far more interesting than Mulligan who is never quite glamorous enough to match Gatsby’s visions of Daisy). Of course Dicaprio’s Gatsby isn’t nearly as charming as Maguire’s narration would suggest, so she’s hardly the only one who doesn’t measure up to the character on the page.
The movie also includes subplots concerning Gatsby’s past, the philandering of Daisy’s husband with the wife (Isla Fisher) of a local mechanic (Jason Clarke), and bootlegging. Although the film is centered during the Rolling Twenties, Luhrmann never really takes the time or effort to adequately place the events in historical context. Where the film succeeds, although not to the extent you might suspect, is with the grandiose production design and lavish parties thrown by Gatsby for the sole purpose of getting the attention of a single person. The 3D effects enhance the setting but certainly aren’t necessary for what boils down to a rather pedestrian love story that could have just as easily as starred Katherine Heigl and Tad Hamilton.
Through the crutch of an amazing amount of narration, The Great Gatsby offers the audience words to describe characters who never come alive on-screen and important details which are described but never really seen. It took nearly half a decade of licking his wounds after Australia for Luhrmann to tackle another feature film. Maybe he should have waited a little longer.