Turn the Volume Down, Old Sport!

The Great Gatsby
(USA/Australia, 143 min.)
Dir. Baz Luhrmann, Writ. Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan.
Is Baz Luhrmann a film director or a disc jockey? He seems to have adapted The Great Gatsby with an excellent ear for creating a playlist of contemporary songs that speak directly to the characters and subtext of the novel, yet very little about his rock ‘n’ roll Gatsby seems to jive. Turn the volume down, Old Sport, and find the magic of the story!

The Great Gatsby might be one of the most unusual adaptations I’ve ever encountered. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is an odd sort because it’s one of the most faithful page-to-screen renditions of a classic novel I’ve seen; however, while Luhrmann realizes the text quite literally, his Gatsby asserts its contemporariness with an in-your-face energy. Virtually every page of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s English-lit staple seems to have made the cut, so die-hard fans of the book have little reason to complain. Likewise, readers who found the novel “boring” in school can’t gripe because this take on The Great Gatsby seems especially energetic. (Ditto those who yawned during the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow adaptation of the 1970s.) Either this Gatsby is hopped up on goofballs or it’s a by-product of contemporary media consumption where everything’s tailored for the “glance effect” and short attention spans.

The first act of The Great Gatsby could surely make or break one’s appreciation of the film. Luhrmann introduces the classic tale with his signature bombast. As Gatsby’s famous voyeur Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) reminisces about his Gatsby days and takes the story back to the years of liquor and jazz, Luhrmann amps up the funk and introduces the audience to Nick’s world via a high-energy montage of quick cuts and bass beats.

Nick visits his cousin Daisy (played by a perfectly cast Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (played by Zero Dark Thirty’s Joel Edgerton), and a few fleeting references are made to the mysterious Mr. Gatsby before Tom whisks Nick off to the city to party down with his kept woman (Isla Fisher). Luhrmann seems to use every device imaginable to amplify the wildness of the party inside the small hotel room of Tom’s extramarital affairs whether it’s slow/rapid motion, swish pans, or frenetic editing. Mostly, though, Luhrmann tells the story by taking anachronistic music and turning it up to eleven. The first half hour of The Great Gatsby, like the beginning of Moulin Rouge!, is a shrill, gaudy clusterfuck of sound and images.

The Great Gatsby comes to life, though, once Gatsby himself finally enters the picture. Nick is invited to one of his neighbour’s big sexy parties, where flappers rock out to Jay-Z and everyone drinks as if they’re at an office party at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The music blares and Nick strains his vocal chords whilst conspiring with friend and fellow society shill Jordan Baker (an impressive Elizabeth Debicki) about the lore of their mysterious host. It’s only when Luhrmann introduces the titled host, J. Gatsby (like Homer J. Simpson, the J. stands for Jay), as he toasts Nick with champagne to some impeccably timed 3D fireworks that this take on the novel finally starts to click.
The magic of Gatsby comes from the spot-on casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. Charismatic and built just right for a seersucker suit, DiCaprio feels like the perfect actor to embody Fitzgerald’s iconic social climber. The actor who graduated from teen heartthrob to high-calibre dramatic star offers just the right air of familiarity to represent Gatsby’s struggle with the American Dream. DiCaprio sees the Oscar like Gatsby sees the green light.

DiCaprio also seems to be one of the few actors in the film who knows how to make a performance jive with Luhrmann’s stylistic flair. Reuniting with the director after Romeo + Juliet, DiCaprio gives Gatsby a skittish mania that plays in sync with the soundtrack. It’s as if Gatsby uses the music to play up his charade with high society.

Mulligan, likewise, is a fine choice to play Daisy. She has an innocence and a sense of naiveté to match the little girl of Fitzgerald’s prose. Like Marion Cotillard in Midnight in Paris, Mulligan also looks perfectly tailored for the flapper garb on Twenties. (As do co-stars Debicki and Fisher.)
Less successful, however, is the casting of Maguire as Nick. This version of The Great Gatsby shows what happens when a bland actor is assumes a boring role. Nick is mostly an observer in The Great Gatsby (both the novel and the film), so the part demands little aside from offering an affectionate gaze and some narration in voice-over. Maguire seems to struggle with these tasks, especially with Nick’s accent, so our Gatsby guide ends up draining the energy from the film, which is striking if one considers how much Luhrmann spikes the punch. If DiCaprio is perfect as Gatsby, then Maguire is to DiCaprio what Peter MacNicol was to Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice.

Maguire’s flatness is especially crushing for The Great Gatsby since Nick has difficulty asserting his voice over the loud music. It’s hard to become involved in this take on The Great Gatsby because the energy and noise impede character development and narrative flow. Luhrmann’s adaptation plays as if the director is more concerned with the music of the film than with the story itself. The soundtrack simply overwhelms the film. The song selections are excellent, if slightly on the nose, and they add a sense of timelessness to The Great Gatsby. Especially good are a speakeasy cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and the use of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful,” which plays as the theme for Gatsby and Daisy’s love.

Although the director’s panache gets the better of itself, one can hardly call this a bad interpretation of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s vintage world is crafted superbly by costume designer and production designer Catherine Martin, and the film glitters with a classic sheen that brings the jazz age to life thanks to cinematographer Simon Duggan. The film actually works quite well once Luhrmann cuts the music and lets Gatsby speak for itself. When DiCaprio and Mulligan allow Gatsby and Daisy’s troubled romance to play itself out without having to compete with Luhrmann’s relentless beat, the effect is much like a DJ at a club who abruptly stops the music and lets the crowd seize the moment in the rest. It’s just a disappointment that such a clear authorial vision doesn’t complement the novel as fantastically as, say, Joe Wright’s audacious take on Anna Karenina transported the literary classic to new heights. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation is certainly a good Gatsby, but, ironically, it isn’t a great one.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)   

The Great Gatsby opens in wide release on May 10.