Not so Great
By Carl Kozlowski
For generations, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby has been enthralling readers with its tale of the mega-rich in the Roaring Twenties and how what should be enchanted lives are actually tragic ones that all too often miserable under the surface.
Yet, the latest film adaptation of the book, despite being filmed by visual wizard Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Romeo and Juliet), not only fails to be a compelling movie but is so stultifying that it should leave viewers wondering what made the book so great in the first place.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as mysterious tycoon Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as his newfound neighbor and confidante Nick Carraway, Gatsby has a great look to it and at first has some nice zip to the pacing as Carraway moves to New York from the Midwest to pursue fortune amid the booming financial markets that preceded the Great Depression. Carraway also has a sultry cousin named Daisy (Carey Mulligan), whom Gatsby has an undying love for following an old affair, while Daisy struggles with her feelings for both Gatsby and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who’s cheating on her.
The fact that the plot is set against Wall Street boom times at first appears to give the movie and its novel a timeless quality, as today the Dow Jones hits 15,000. But as Luhrmann quickly devolves into just showing opulence as an end in itself, the movie’s social relevance disappears as well.
The romantic roundelays quickly become repetitive, with the major subtext being even the rich can never truly get what they want or be happy if they seek fulfillment solely from material things. But surprisingly, when faced with the novel’s plot on a big screen rather than in the pages in one’s hands, it quickly becomes apparent that even the core story of Gatsby is empty and hollow. There’s just not enough plot to sustain interest, especially when that movie winds up slowing the pace down so much that it drags the story out to an interminable two hours and 23 minutes. Frankly, 90 minutes would have been plenty of time for the threadbare plotting.
But Luhrmann (who also co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator Craig Pearce) has never been known for restraint, having created some of the most visually extravagant movies to hit the screen. He mixed modern pop music with anachronistic time frames in Moulin Rouge! and added a hip soundtrack to Romeo and Juliet when he moved its action into the modern world.
But here, inexplicably teaming with superstar rapper and hip-hop mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, no one is reining in Luhrmann. The movie’s 50 minutes of padding is often filled with painterly shots of cityscapes and lush countryside and excessive parties that should give viewers the kind of headaches that they’d actually have from attending them.
Tacking on rap and hip-hop songs to the old-fashioned imagery might sound like fun but is, at best, a blatant attempt to draw younger and blacker audiences into a film that is white-bread to the core. At worst, it’s incongruous and annoying, much like the pointless use of 3D imagery in a film devoid of thrills.
The star-studded cast looks great, but everyone has fallen into such predictable styles that even the allure of one of the world’s biggest stars, DiCaprio, in the title role is dimmed. It’s really getting tiring seeing him stand smugly through most of a movie and then attempt to shock audiences with one quick burst of violent anger. Maguire, too, is wearing out his welcome by playing innocent rubes surprised by the big city. His facial expressions in this movie are the same as the ones he used for the boyish and awestruck Peter Parker in the Spider-Man trilogy.
In the end, it’s appropriate that the movie is set on the wealthy West Egg and East Egg enclaves of Long Island, because this edition of Gatsby just lays one big egg. It’s likely to wind up crashing as hard as the 1929 stock market after the curiosity factor of this opening weekend fades.