Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
Tobey Maguire as Nick Caraway
Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan
Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker
Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson
Jason Clarke as George Wilson
Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim
Jack Thompson as Henry Gatz
Max Cullen as Owl Eyes
Callan McAuliffe as Young Gatsby
Conor Fogarty as Gatsby’s Butler
It’s been long enough since the 1920s now that there are few individuals left with a living memory of what life was actually like back then, particularly in the frenzied pre-crash days in Manhattan. All we have left instead are the artifacts of the time giving a glimpse, how truthful we do not know, of those days. When it comes to the Roaring Twenties, no glimpse has been more favored or mimicked than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
For those who haven’t had to read it yet for school, “Gatsby” concerns itself with the humans impacted by the carelessness of idleness and wealth at a time when both were easy to come by. The lens of all this is the titular Gatsby himself (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy mystery man who throws unbelievably lavish parties on his Long Island estate each weekend in the hopes of attracting the attention of his old love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan). All as seen through the eyes of F. Scott er, Nick Calloway (Tobey Maguire), a frustrated young writer-turned-bond salesman from the Midwest who in no way whatsoever is a stand in for the author himself.
At least not so obviously in the book. The movie makes no bones about making the comparison, or any other points it chooses to make, as obvious and drawn out as humanly possible, just to make sure we’re all on the same page at the same time.
As a filmmaker, director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) has long seemed to hold that to spare the rod is to spoil the child and that movies should take full advantage of their abilities to manipulate and maneuver an audience. His take on “Gatsby” is manipulative and obvious at a level that would make Spielberg green with envy.
And at some points that is not a bad thing. Luhrmann’s more-is-more philosophy is an excellent match for the wildest excess of the so-called ‘Jazz Age.’ Production designer Catherine Martin and cinematographer Simon Duggan have turned Long Island and Manhattan of the past into an Oz-like wonderland which truly does fit the atmosphere and tone of the excess Gatsby the man is trying to put on.
Put on being the operative phrase. A man of mystery, a man no one really knows, Gatsby claims to be an Oxford man, a scion of old money who has spent the years since World War I traveling Europe and possibly murdering people. Although that last one could just be a wild rumor. All Nick really knows is that he likes Gatsby, and Gatsby likes Nick’s cousin Daisy and has for a very long time to the point where everything he says and does is to get Daisy away from her indolent husband (Joel Edgerton) and back in his life again.
Which sounds a lot less like flappers dancing to Jay-Z and a lot more like real people with real feelings, which is where Luhrmann’s sensibilities become less of a help and more of a hindrance. It’s okay to put your thumb on the scale when you’re amping things up, but it’s got to come down some or eventually the tone won’t match the story anymore and “Gatsby” suffers from that. Not so much in an overabundance of stylefor all its opulence it pulls back to as close to low key as Luhrmann gets when it’s time for characters to open upas over eagerness.
If a point needs to be made, Luhrmann will make sure that it is skywritten in giant letters above you. Letters which catch on fire and then explode. If a car accident is essential to the plot that accident will be shown and re-shown in ridiculous slow motion and multiple angles with everything it touches examined in detail. If a green light at the end of a dock is thematically relevant it will flash in your face so brightly you won’t be able to see anything else. What you end up with is something so on the nose that all depth is lost.
And there’s definitely some there, not least because Fitzgerald designed his characters so well, but also because the cast certainly gets them. Luhrmann’s actors are firing on all cylinders with DiCaprio, Edgerton and Mulligan displaying truly outstanding work, bouncing as they most from caricatures to real people and back again depending on the matter at hand. If Maguire isn’t quite at that level that is because he is standing on the sidelines watching most of the time, or narrating the novel of “Gatsby” from an asylum he has been committed to in the future in a wraparound story which has been added to the film, but which adds nothing to the story.
Luhrmann seems to be on the right path and with a little bit of discipline he probably could have made it. But there are just too many distractions for his attention and as a result, “Gatsby” waivers and wanders, overblown and overdone and about twenty minutes too long. Fine performances and stunning production design make it worth a look on video, but don’t expect to take much from it.