After five unsuccessful attempts over the last eighty-odd years, perhaps it’s time to give up on a movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel The Great Gatsby. If we were to look for a final nail in that cinematic coffin, Baz Luhrmann’s subtlety-raping wank-fest should provide one big enough to bury it for generations to come, and in 3D no less.
This is a migraine-inducing, tone-deaf attempt at telling this glorious story so rich in character and detail, composed by a director who can’t even begin to spell those two words. It’s so baffling that this story about revealing the shallowness of the roaring 20s and the substantial emptiness of the pointless noise and color signifying nothing becoming a passion project for Baz Luhrmann, whose entire scam revolves around making the audience confuse visual exuberance for genuine talent.
If you’re familiar with the book, you might think Luhrmann’s excessive style could perfectly fit the necessary visual grandness needed for Gatsby’s legendary parties in his castle. Yes, these scenes make Luhrmann’s calculated visual insanity in Moulin Rouge look reserved by comparison. His signature fast cutting, haphazard use of bright colors and broad characterizations mixed with a completely unnecessary use of anachronistic music should satisfy his fans looking for nothing beyond pretty pictures and mind-numbing sound design.
Even though I mostly think of 3D as nothing but a distraction, it’s easy to understand in the most simplistic sense why it was put to use to even further accentuate Luhrmann’s CGI-infested vision of 20s New York which looks so fake, it might as well have been Narnia. But as soon as the mysterious Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) true plans behind the lavish parties and his back-story revolving around the emotionally conflicted Daisy (Carey Mulligan) are revealed, the 3D becomes nothing but a curious frustration.
You see, as it should be expected from an adaptation of this book, as soon as the motivations of these characters are revealed, we are expected to settle into a powerful drama that focuses entirely on this small circle of somewhat shallow yet fascinating characters. It’s almost a relief to find out that Luhrmann leaves his usual manic style behind in order to settle into a more traditional narrative and let the characters at least breathe and evolve, even for a little while.
However, after this point where we’re expected to simply focus on a story so rich and fascinating that it’s central set piece is five characters simply conversing in a hotel room, the 3D becomes more and more unnecessary. If the 3D absolutely needed to be employed, it might have been a better idea to switch to the good old-fashioned 2D after Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) first meets Gatsby and the story settles into an exploration of the character in relation to himself and to Daisy. However, this would be asking for too much self-restraint from Luhrmann and that’s statistically impossible.
Luhrmann is endlessly enamored with his visuals and lets them take the front stage at all times, which does not leave much space to get into the characters beyond surface level. Luhrmann’s genius plan in making up for this handicap is to use the framing device where Carraway writes his story in an asylum to superimpose large chunks of Fitzgerald’s text on the screen. If you’re going to see one movie this year that makes you literally read half the book it’s adapted from in 3D, it might as well be The Great Gatsby. Forget about Kindle and Nook, apparently reading books in movie theaters is the next step in literature.
Leonardo DiCaprio showcases the required charisma and the subsequent frailty expected from Gatsby. Carey Mulligan is a bit of a green choice, it takes a more seasoned actress to fully convey the internal coldness of the character. As the narrator who’s removed from the events that surround him, Nick Carraway has always been a thankless character to play but Tobey Maguire does whatever he can even though he comes up short on many occasions.
Fans of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge should find a lot to be over-stimulated by during the first half and might be bored during the second. Fans of the book will more than likely be offended beyond belief, so nothing to recommend there. It does accomplish one thing though: It makes the underwhelming 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford look like a seminal masterpiece in comparison.