Review: ‘Gatsby' a mess of a spectacle gone awry
Published: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 4:34 p.m.
Somewhere in the afterlife, F. Scott Fitzgerald is having a drink with his pal Ernest Hemingway and mourning the fate that's befallen his creation. The latest movie incarnation of Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby” abandons the nuanced, elegiac prose and sober reflection of the novel for a mish-mash of overinflated spectacle. The sole reason it's not a complete disaster is that director Baz Luhrmann apparently ran out of steam before filming the third act, forcing the proceedings to slow down and allowing the material to actually breathe and live.
'The Great Gatsby'
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
“Gatsby” the novel holds up very well to modern scrutiny, and it's no surprise that someone wanted to take another crack at it now. Ashamed of his humble station, Jay Gatsby reinvents himself and gains obscene wealth and fame, and yet he still longs to recapture some missing piece of his past. His story takes place in an era when the stock market is booming, booze and drugs are commonplace, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous are the talk of the town.
Does this sound at all relevant to now? In an age of “Real Housewives” and ubiquitous cultural nostalgia, you couldn't pick a better story fit for a modern retelling; Gatsby is Don Draper without an Old Fashioned in his hand. But where the cast and crew of “Mad Men” use their period trappings as a launch point to tell their story and dig into their characters, “Gatsby” seems more concerned with superficial detail and showing how great the parties where back in the Roaring '20s.
Credit where credit is due: the colors are vibrant, the clothes are beautiful, and the lavish sets recreate the era of Prohibition and Flappers in vivid detail. Even with the Oscars only a couple months behind us, “Gatsby” is an early favorite for costume design and production design awards. And the party scenes contain frenetic thrills of a sort; you believe everybody's having a good time, even if hearing Jay-Z and Beyonce at those parties is jarring to say the least.
It's too bad that, for most of its running length, that's all “Gatsby” is: An obscene display of the lives of the upper class (while they are tended to by black servants and make flagrantly racist remarks, no less) that's disconnected from any story the movie might want to tell. Instead of offering a critique on this ostentatious exhibition of privilege, or any sort of opinion whatsoever, Luhrmann has his camera gaze enviously at these people and their wealth as if to say “Look how well they had it back then!”
All this is to say nothing of the movie's other egregious flaws. The acting is all over the map, from maddeningly inconsistent (Tobey Maguire as Nick Carroway) to cringingly over the top (Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan) to overly reliant on acting tics (Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, who repeats the phrase “old sport” as if he's being paid by the word). Similarly, the movie can't find a uniform tone; the scene where Gatsby reunites with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) after their long separation careens wildly from somber to screwball comedy and back. (Incidentally, Mulligan is the one person in the cast who's consistently great; she does a heart-rending job of capturing Daisy's inner turmoil.)
Things do settle down in the final half hour or so, allowing Luhrmann and the cast a chance to actually explore the characters' lives and stumble into some interesting subtext on occasion. But there's not nearly enough good material to outweigh the bloated mess that makes up the bulk of the movie. If you're truly interested in the great story of Jay Gatsby, try your local bookstore instead.