By Mark Saldana
Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Love it or hate it, director Baz Luhrmann has a definitive style, easily recognizable, perhaps more than his own name. After the press/promo screening I attended to review the film, my friends and I discussed our thoughts on his latest movie, an adaptation of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s most celebrated novel The Great Gatsby. For some of these people, the name Baz Luhrmann did not actually ring a bell. Then, I mentioned William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, and each person either responded with a resoundingly positive or negative reaction. They either loved Luhrmann’s signature style or despised it.
As for myself, I feel that Luhrmann’s gorgeous, sometimes cartoonish, hyper-real visuals and his penchant for using modern music in period pieces mostly works. His modern version of Romeo and Juliet works because it is hyperstylized. Because Moulin Rouge is a musical, Luhrmann’s pop music sensibilities enhance the presentation. I still haven’t seen the film Australia, so I cannot comment on his work in that film. As for Gatsby, his decadent and overindulgent visuals and musical choices work on an aesthetic level, as they are meant to do; however, in his latest cinematic feast, it seems as if Lurhmann spent too much time worrying about the look of his film and not enough time focusing on the writing and some of the performances of his cast. In Luhrmann’s Gatsby, style prevails a little too much over substance.
Surprisingly, I was never required to read Fitzgerald’s classic novel in school, and therefore have never read it. In cases like this one, I try to do as much research as possible to better critique the adaptation and its faithfulness to the material that inspired it. Based on my internet “Cliff Notes,” I have determined that Baz Luhrman’s film remains faithful and true to the novel’s story and its characters. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is an aspiring writer who makes his living selling bonds on Wall Street. He lives in a humble home next door to the lavish gargantuan estate of the infamous and enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Carraway becomes reacquainted with his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), both of whom also live nearby. Carraway eventually receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s wild parties where he meets and befriends the mysterious, yet cordial host. Carraway eventually finds out Gatsby’s motivation for the invitation and he and his cousin Daisy soon get swept up in his seemingly carefree and self-indulgent lifestyle.
Luhrmann co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce and unfortunately, despite its faithfulness to the story and characters, loses something in the adaptation. In all of the style and panache of the presentation, Luhrmann’s film lacks much of the punch of Fitzgerald’s commentary and critique on the Roaring Twenties era and the cowardly unaccountability of the rich and famous. The screenplay comes close, but the characters lack the proper development to effectively present Fitzgerald’s message. For certain, the director’s visual style and pop culture sensibilities serve the aesthetics well, but Luhrmann does not achieve the right balance of style and substance.
In addition to the writing issues, the film’s cast delivers performances that range from brilliant to melodramatic. In the movie’s climactic act, it feels as if one were watching a big budget soap opera. Some of the key dramatic scenes play out laughably. The writing in these moments also should take some of that blame. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire do have some truly magical moments on the screen nevertheless. Carey Mulligan also has some lovely scenes as the adorable, yet vacuous and frivolous Daisy. The film also features a great performance by Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. I was a bit disappointed that talented actors such as Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher had such caricaturesque roles in the film and portrayed these characters as such.
Clarke and Fisher portray the Wilsons, a poor working class couple who have key roles in the story, but their characters are written so poorly and portrayed just as badly that their screen time lacks the gravitas necessary to deliver the punch of Fitzgerald’s moral. Perhaps, gravitas is lacking from this film project as a whole. Baz Luhrmann does a superb job capturing the flamboyance and pageantry of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but when it comes to taking the story into more serious territory, he cannot quite pull it off. I will reluctantly recommend this film as a matinee or rental. It looks gorgeous on the big screen, but should also look amazing on an HD-television; however, I would not recommend spending top dollar to see the film in the theater or even in 3D. That is unless one can afford to spend money frivolously like some of Fitzgerald’s characters.