THE GREAT GATSBY (2013, Baz Luhrmann): 6/10
Neither the noxious debacle its harshes critics are deeming it, nor the sumptuous delight its trailer promised (along with the promise from Luhrmann’s earlier great films ROMEO + JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE), this frustrating but interesting adaptation is busy, intense, and romanticized without ever being truly emotional. DiCaprio is outstanding as Gatbsy — perhaps one of the best performances in a career overflowing with them (his consistency and dynamite passion has been going for 20 years, from THIS BOY’S LIFE and THE QUICK AND THE DEAD through TITANIC, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE DEPARTED, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, with almost everything in between). Unfortunately, Maguire isn’t nearly as good in the role of Nick Carraway, from whose perspective we are asked to experience the entire film. There’s a pointless framing story for Maguire to narrate from (and his voiceover adds little, at times an actual crutch when Luhrmann can’t express things any other way), and even as the awkward outsider his character inhabits, Maguire still feels phony. I’ve liked him before (in roles as diverse as THE ICE STORM and SPIDER-MAN) but he’s a poor fit here. (I’d like to have seen someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt play Carraway).
I won’t say much about Fitzgerald’s source material for a couple reasons. First, I haven’t read it since high school and even then it didn’t make as big an impact on me as This Side of Paradise did. Secondly, it shouldn’t matter how the film compares to its source material. I’ve long been of the opinion that if you’re not going to change things, don’t make a movie. Literature and cinema are vastly different art forms, and any movie seeking to slavishly and faithfully adapt a book is asking to be neutered and ill-fitting. The best adaptations retain only a kernel of the novel’s themes and story points and make them wholly unique in the visual form. (Cases in point: Terrence Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE and Peter Weir’s FEARLESS).
But what’s interesting about Lurhmann’s and co-writer Craig Pearce’s take on the material is how critical their eye is towards its characters — especially Daisy, who (despite Carey Mulligan’s fine performance) is quite loathsome. The benefit of this is that it turns Gatsby’s tragedy into not a story of unrequited love, but of the fact that he wasted his life loving the wrong person. Daisy here is flighty, materialistic, callous, whimsical, selfish, and afraid. She’s not really worthy of Gatsby’s love, yet he pours himself into her with elaborate passion. That definitely had me thinking — but then you get Edgerton’s rough-edged performance of the dickish Tom Buchanan to make him out to be a pillar of shitty old-money hatefulness, plus the hordes of gold-digging excess-seeking hanger-ons, monopolizing the screen with hedonistic superficiality. It all combines to a disjointed, sour overall experience that I can’t say really works but certainly has a lot to like — not just DiCaprio (and the unknown Elizabeth Debicki, shining in a small role as Jordan) and the lavish set design/costumes, but the music. Luhrmann’s has always known a great soundtrack, and here everything works — even the anachronistic touches (like the sultry arrangement of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love”). Plus, corny as the joke is, Luhrmann takes the jazz age and scores it to Jay-Z. After all, if you quickly spell “jazz” out loud…