Even though “The Great Gatsby” has gotten the movie treatment several times in the past, no film adaptation has ever really stood out as the definitive version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel. Director Baz Luhrmann’s film is certainly the most visually arresting interpretation of “The Great Gatsby” ever produced. Catherine Martin, who previously worked with Luhrmann on “Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Australia,” deserves multiple Oscar nominations for her hyper sets and eye-popping costumes. As wonderful as Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” is to look at, the enchanting visuals are also ironically the movie’s downfall. In the midst of the art direction, costumes, and music, the story and characters that made Fitzgerald’s book a classic, become a mere afterthought.
For all those who haven’t already read the novel, here’s the cliff notes setup: Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, a young man who travels to New York to be a stockbroker in the 1920s. In the vein of Ewan McGregor’s character in “Moulin Rouge,” the troubled Nick recounts his story by writing on a typewriter. He tells us all about his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Although Tom loves his wife, he is a possessive bully who has no moral qualms about sleeping with Isla Fisher’s Myrtle on the side. Nick prefers to just look the other way and not get involved in the affairs of others.
Living next door to Nick is the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who likes to throw the most extravagant parties New York, as ever seen. There’s a notable extended party scene that looks like it was recycled from unused footage in “Moulin Rouge.”
All that’s missing is Jim Broadbent singing “Because We Can.” Gatsby takes Nick under his wing and informs him that he once had an affair with Daisy before WWI hit. Gatsby is keen on winning Daisy back and returning to the good old days. Nick is roped into the center of this love triangle, which is destined to end in tragedy. That Baz Luhrmann, he certainly loves stories with sad endings.
The actors are all well suited with DiCaprio as the slick, overly confident Gatsby, Mulligan as the confused Daisy, and McGuire as the naive narrator. Too bad Luhrmann is more interested in directing the actors in the background than the actors in the foreground. This is a movie with far too much going on in almost every shot. Whether it’s a burlesque dancer or fireworks, there’s always something over-the-top going on in the backdrop to distract the audience from the narrative. There’s no doubt that Luhrmann can make big, spectacular movies. Somebody should tell Luhrmann, however, that sometimes less is more.
The most off-putting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, which works in contemporary hits from Jay Z, Beyoncé, Fergie, and others. This brand of music is appropriate for an off-the-wall musical like “Moulin Rouge,” but Luhrmann’s modern music video approach just feels misplaced with this material. The only way this approach might have worked would be if Luhrmann had gone all out and made this a musical version of “The Great Gatsby.” Even then, however, there’s no guarantee these music choices would match the content.
Then there’s the 3D aspect. On one hand, it’s encouraging to see a non-action movie experiment with 3D effects. After all, there’s a lot more filmmakers can do with 3D than have Optimus Prime fly at the screen. Much like the movie’s other stylistic choices, though, the 3D doesn’t feel especially necessary.
Unlike Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” or Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” Luhrmann never does anything intriguing with the 3D here. It’s just another needless accessory added onto an already overblown ball gown.
If you’re a high school English teacher looking to show a “The Great Gatsby” movie to your class, this one is still better than the bland Robert Redford version from 1974. Although Luhrmann’s film may be over produced, it will at least give audiences something pretty and energized to look at. If you want a version that captures the themes and intrigue of Fitzgerald’s novel, however, you’re probably going to have to wait a few more years for another director to tackle this material.
(Editor’s Notes: See more reviews by Nick Spake at www.nickpicksflicks.com.)