Review by Luke Whitmire
The Great Gatsby truly is a beautiful, rich spectacle that has gleaming and saturated colors with kinetic emotion. Buz Lurhmann’s visual style and palate has always been hypnotic, cinematic insanity, often beset with strong characters. Restraint isn’t his thing. In previous films like Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia, he used the same manic technique. I love his frantic aesthetic used in The Great Gatsby, especially to capture the loose and out-of-control times of the twenties, but Lurhmann uses it superfluously that it sometimes muddles the characterizations and themes.
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the same name, the film follows narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an up and coming bond broker who spends his Summer in New York. He eventually meets Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the rest of the unrelenting, self-indulgent community around him that meet every so often for robust, lavish parties to celebrate being kings-of-the-wealthy. Nick reconnects with his fickle and beautiful cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who was born into wealth. Her old-money, cocky husband Tom Bucanan (Joe Edgerton) swells with ambition and thrives on attaining more money. Nick soon comes to know that Daisy once had a romance with the mysteriously, ambitious Gatsby before the war, and learns that Gatsby came from poverty. Gatsby has created a false identity to project to others that he is an honest, hard-working citizen. He manufactures this identity to project all of his goals and passions onto Daisy, the lost love of his life.
Gatsby has built a mansion and has just about every material thing a human being can attain with millions of dollars. He has built an empire of excess in Daisy’s honor, and hopes his wealth, the ostentatious parties, and all the affectations will lure her back into his life forever. In the end, Gatsby has delusions of grandeur, and like himself, Daisy is a self-created illusion that he can’t attain. Gatsby is extremely hopeful, but willfully blind. Carraway calls Gatsby “the most hopeful man I have ever met.”
This film is extraordinarily surreal and the beautiful aesthetic is used to reflect the false illusion and dreams humanity harbored within themselves at the time: power and greatness. The stylized glitz and glam is used to mask the emptiness and glut of this high society. Sweeping camera moves and frenetic editing gives a sense ferocious wonder of the time. Our senses are inundated with colors, anachronistic pop-music, rapid movement and sound. It all moves so fast with so much visual and auditory perfection, that it will bereave you of any emotional connection to the characters.
The performances in this film are stronger and more dynamic than any previous efforts by Lurhmann. He has made these characters more human, but we are not able to connect with them long enough, or deeply enough, to invest in them. Not being able to connect is my main criticism, or maybe that was Lurhmann’s purpose all along. He does successfully capture their hollow, avaricious and soulless lives. The central problem is whenever things calm down and Gatsby becomes the focal point, the narrative slumbers, but when Gatsby is beleaguered by all the excesses of cinema technique, the film is fun and very entertaining. Most of the narrative works best when its being satirical, though it’s not a satire, exactly.
Leonardo DiCaprio is the personification of Jay Gatsby. The man gets better and better in each film. I’m convinced DiCaprio can do anything as an actor. He captures Gatsby’s kind-hearted, charming, optimistic, uncertain, self-effacing and magnetic persona with precision. DiCaprio’s performance really shines as his character gets caught in an adolescent understanding of love and life. He’s the principal architect of the film. The other actors did a good job, but are profoundly forgettable.
Bottom line:
The film is a seductive thing of beauty; the exorbitant visual energy and DiCaprio’s uncanny performance, but in the end, we don’t really care that much for the characters. Even though this is the best attempt yet at capturing the essence of the Fitzgerald novel, it very seldom captures the certain delicacies that made the novel profound.
* * *
3 out of 5 stars