Review: The Great Gatsby, too much and not enough

Towards the middle of “The Great Gatsby,” director Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s revered Roaring Twenties novel about an enigmatic self-made millionaire with a sketchy background, there’s a tea-party about to begin.

Jay Gatsby is nervously awaiting the arrival of his heart-throb Daisy Buchanan, whom he hasn’t seen for years. The setting is crammed to the gills with flowers and sweet-cakes. “Do you think it’s too much?” Gatsby asks his next door neighbor Nick who has arranged for the reunion. “I think it’s what you want,” he replies. Says Gatsby: “I do too.”

The off-hand exchange can also be used to describe Luhrmann’s approach to bringing the iconic novel about the energetic excesses and idealism–but also hollowness and cynicism–of the Jazz Age to the screen.

It’s “too much,” as is the Australian director’s wont. At the same time it’s not enough. Though it boasts a big-name cast of top actors led by Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy, it falls woefully short when it comes to conveying the complex interactions between the characters that Fitzgerald wrote about along with its exploration of class and society’s foibles.

It’s hard to accuse Luhrmann of self-restraint. Visually lavish and over-the-top is his signature. And when it works, as in “Moulin Rouge” about turn-of-the century Paris, it can appeal to movie goers.  Catherine Martin, the directors wife, again has done the grandiose production design for the film as well the stunning costumes. She won Oscars in both categories for “Moulin Rouge.”

But in “Gatsby,” the visual opulence and frenetic action often comes across as a mix of over-produced music videos and perfume commercials.  At a party given by Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, hundreds of guests anachronistically Charleston to hip-hop music.  (Jay-Z supervised the soundtrack—he also gets a producer credit—which features songs by Beyonce, Lana del Rey and other current pop stars.) Then as a big fireworks display goes off behind him, Gatsby looks down gleefully at the frantically twitching party people as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” blares away.

The film is eye-popping in more than one respect. The 3-D version takes it to the limit, with characters jumping out of the screen full-faced and other elements maximized to take advantage of the three-dimensional technology. Some of it works, and is fun, but it’s also a distraction.

Luhrmann in his interpretation doesn’t stray much from the novel’s plot. The movie by and large sticks closely to Fitzgerald’s story arc with the exception of a controversial framing device:  Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway—the narrator and a neutral observer through much of the film—writes his recollections of Gatsby and Daisy while in a Minnesota asylum where he has gone to cure his alcoholism. 

And it includes the most potent visual symbols: The green light Gatsby is transfixed by at the end of the dock where Daisy lives with her wealthy husband; and the eerie billboard of bespectacled occulist Dr. T.J.  Ecklestone looking down godlike over a depressing stretch that lies between the privileged enclaves of Long Island’s gold coast and Manhattan.  Called the Valley of Ashes, it’s the setting for the most melodramatic scenes in the film.

The movie takes a new tack in the second half. It quiets down and the plot gains more traction, moving relentlessly to its fatal conclusion. The characters also fill out. DiCaprio, by and large delivers as Gatsby, in looks and demeanor. However, he starts out as awkward and bewildered instead of optimistic and charismatic, as described by Fitzgerald. He also has a bit of an awkward accent, especially when he keeps chiming in with his “old sport” tagline. At age 38, the actor, who has taken on complex roles in eccentric films like “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “Inception” and, most recently, “Django Unchained,” gets to once more take on a handsome leading-man role for the first time since “Titanic” fifteen years ago.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy is more problematic. Beautiful and winsome, she fails to convince that she ever had a smoldering relationship with Gatsby, and largely draws a blank in deepening her role. One exception occurs when the main characters have gathered in a room in the Plaza Hotel and she is caught between Gatsby and her husband as they clash for her affections.

Maguire, with a light gravelly voice, is largely competent and appealing as Nick Carraway, elucidating details about Gatsby’s background as he learns them, often in a voice over, sometimes with words lifted literally from the novel. These may appear on the screen and float out to the audience in 3-D—another gimmick. 

Audiences are likely to split in their reactions, perhaps along age lines. Luhrmann seems to be targeting a younger audience that is more responsive to a glitzy surface and a hip hop soundtrack than it cares about fidelity to Fitzgerald’s novel. It was after all published nearly 90 years ago. But while “Gatsby” is not without some guilty pleasures, the bottom line is that the director has tried too hard and the overwrought result is a case where more is less.