Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is not a great film. It has moments of greatness, flickering beneath the spasms, shrieks and glitter. Much of the film’s gifts lay in the singular performance of Leonardo DiCaprio as the elusive, provocative dreamer, Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio captured something Robert Redford didn’t when he portrayed Gatsby in the 1974 film. F. Scott Fitzgerald, if he could have stomached the rest of it, would have been dazzled by Leo — a wreck behind his sparkling baby blues, the American dream coiled within him attempting to buy his way into a world that did not want him. The reach is what matters when we fumble towards that dream. But the fix is in, especially now in 2013. The extreme differences in wealth of the few is all around us now.
What Baz Luhrmann appears to be doing, however, doesn’t match with the parts of the movie that do work — DiCaprio and of course, the costumes and art direction. Catherine Martin’s work is jaw-dropping throughout. Though I appreciate his approach to that world, the roaring 20s before the stock market crashed and then, like now, the wealthy escaped unscathed but the self-made rich men and the underclass took the brunt of the punishment. It’s hard not to watch this Great Gatsby and not think about how things have been going in America lately.
All the same, the irony remains — what Luhrmann has done to Gatsby the work of timeless fiction is what Gatsby himself did in remaking his image; they made the mistake of thinking more is better. It didn’t matter for Gatsby and for Luhrmann, and this film, it doesn’t much matter either. It is a good thing, then, that his actors are working so hard.
The film is worth seeing for DiCaprio’s performance alone. Carey Mulligan is miscast as Daisy as she brings too much humanity and compassion to a character who really should be more opaque and childlike under her mask of allure. Nonetheless, she’s done her research and has carefully laid out a Daisy that makes some sense in the Luhrmann realm; it’s not unlike casting Claire Danes as Juliet — an unlikely decision that mostly paid off in that case. A golden girl is a golden girl and Mulligan’s Daisy isn’t one of those. Thus, this story of Great Gatsby must reveal more deliberate, palpable cruelty than is necessary.
Another problem is Nick Carraway as realized by Tobey Maguire. While his work, like Mulligan’s, is heartfelt his character continually narrates stuff that’s about to happen and then we must watch as it did happen then we must hear the voice-over of what just happened. What the movie really wanted to be was a balls-out musical or opera. All that was missing were the songs.
On the other hand, it is difficult to hate a movie that so illuminates our ongoing American tragedy. Will audiences still be able to feel the heartbeats of Fitzgerald’s novel when Luhrmann has his hands so firmly around its throat? Does the big picture remind us that it’s always a good thing to remind people of Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby’s struggle, and the unending, distinctly American desire to reach, however futilely towards the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock — the one that means so much to Gatsby, that Daisy never even noticed at all. Everything came to her so easily, why would she notice.
Despite its flaws, Gatsby is a film by an artistically committed director who let his interpretation hang out completely, balls, warts and all. It is a surrealistic rendering of a great story. Somewhere in there the story still lives and breathes, maybe through the aqua blue of DiCaprio’s eyes, maybe in his desperation to impress the girl he was never good enough to have. It’s still there as we watch DiCaprio try to look like one of them in his ridiculous pink suit. Gatsby was a man of hope. His mistake was thinking what looks so fabulous on the outside was really nothing more than easily distracted people waiting for the next party, the next fun car ride, the next dance. Poor Gatsby. He thought it all meant something.
Even though the movie itself doesn’t seem to achieve what it so bravely reached for, DiCaprio quietly gave one of the best performances of his career. Imagine that.