“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy,” drawls Jordan Baker as played by Elizabeth Debicki in the newest onscreen incarnation of The Great Gatsby.
The line, taken verbatim from the novel, could easily describe the film. Baz Luhrmann’s vision is a large party, no doubt about it. Luhrmann, known for Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, characteristically doesn’t skimp on the visuals in his lush, achingly modern take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. It’s a stunner.
The film has enjoyed commercial success, even flanked by heavyweight releases like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness, and recently passed the $100 million mark in domestic box office to become Luhrmann’s most successful title to date. But critics have universally panned the film, leaving us to wonder if the definitive Gatsby movie is simply an impossible venture.
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers raked the movie over the coals, giving it one out of four stars and using his acerbic pen without mercy. Calling the latest film one that would make Fitzgerald turn over in his grave, Travers notes that the novel has “defied five attempts at filming”— and Luhrmann’s much-hyped try makes six.
“The actors are buried in the art direction, along with feeling,” Travers writes. “The film looks as stiff and lifeless as a posh store window.”
Originally slated for a Christmas release, The Great Gatsby had a buildup that seems to have been unfulfilled. Travers concludes his review with a death blow: “There may be worse movies this summer than The Great Gatsby, but there won't be a more crushing disappointment.”
A blog post from the Washington Post was equally harsh, christening the film a “cultural desecration.” The New York Times review was kind to star Leonardo DiCaprio and his portrayal of Jay Gatsby, noting that he is “beautiful, sad, confident, and desperate in exactly the way Gatsby should be,” but ultimately called the film “gaudily and grossly inauthentic.”
Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby had a generous $127 million production budget and star-studded cast, but neither can make up for the emptiness of the film. What was missing?
When it comes to classic literature, straying from the original work often brings films under fire, but here, unfaithfulness to Fitzgerald’s beloved words is not the problem. The script takes some liberties, including the strange choice of having Nick Carraway narrate from a sanitarium, but overall preserves the story even down to using sentences straight from the novel.
But even with Fitzgerald’s immortal lines in their mouths, these characters are not real. They come across onscreen like exquisitely dressed paper dolls: flat and lifeless. While it can be argued that the lavish emptiness of the 1920s New York City created by Luhrmann calls for surface emotions, the lack of feeling jars the story. It’s not that the book’s characters don’t feel — they do. They feel too much and selfishly allow those feelings to take them over.
The film is visually stunning, but dazzle crosses to camp far too often to give it the emotional pull of the original work. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway is almost obnoxiously wide-eyed, two-dimensional and out of keeping with the canny yet wistful narration of the novel. The brash, blustering Tom Buchanan as played by Joel Edgerton is no more real than Nick, and Debicki’s Jordan Baker is equally illusive.
The scenes with DiCaprio as Gatsby and a glowing Carey Mulligan as his Daisy are the only moments where the film truly breathes. It’s when Daisy sees Gatsby for the first time in five years — when they surrender to that first forbidden kiss — when she shatters his heart in a stuffy parlor room. In these moments alone, the characters are alive.
But DiCaprio and Mulligan’s chemistry can’t carry the film, which falters at important points, including the climactic scene where Tom pleads for Daisy to remember what they are to each other. For the scene to work, Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan has to feel, but he stays brash and blustering even when we need to see him break.
Luhrmann spares nothing to pursue his vision, but ultimately the film is lacking. While The Great Gatsby is indeed a large party, those hoping for intimacy should seek elsewhere.