If there’s a thread connecting Baz Luhrmann’s films, it’s the idea of suffering a loss in the middle of apparent gain. His films are ostentatious and visually explosive, but they are those things to the degree that Luhrmann can play them off stories about sadness and disillusion and the inevitable suffering that unites humanity. His kinetic take on Romeo + Juliet is remembered for launching Leonardo DiCaprio to new teen idol heights, but it’s also a story rooted in fear and insecurity. Moulin Rouge had moments of splendor that cemented Luhrmann’s modern style — frenetic, unyielding, and unafraid to cartoonishly mix CGI and real people — but the film used those tools in the service of a story about heartbreak. Even the dismal Australia dealt with the tension in scope between desires and reality. You get the idea by now: big spectacle, big setbacks. Given all that, it’s no wonder Luhrmann found himself directing and co-writing an adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The story’s Roaring Twenties backdrop is a perfect excuse for Luhrmann to bring his penchant for achronological reinvention to one of the first great American novels, and the inherent themes of loss and discord had to have looked like a good fit on paper.
Yet for all its nods toward opulence and its trappings, Luhrmann’s latest film is missing the boldness that defined his earlier work. There’s a curiously uneasy quality about the film, an insecure deference to the source material that translates as lack of direction or motive on screen. Adaptations of novels are always going to be different than the original. Psychologically nuanced texts that create specific experiences for each reader are never going to be the same as visual versions that lock the story to specific images. Yet Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby is schizophrenic, in one moment resting happily in its own universe and in the next doing everything it can to drag the book into the theater. For instance: the novel features some of the most famous prose in modern American lit, and Luhrmann doesn’t want any of it to go to waste. As such, he not only relies heavily on voice-over narration, but he actually establishes a narrative framework that has the main character writing a book about his story. It’s not just narration, it’s recitation. On top of that, some of the narration occasionally wafts across the screen in scratchy type, as if Luhrmann wants to get extra credit for citing certain lines. The result is that the film doesn’t feel like an adaptation because it doesn’t feel like anything. It’s not a work that stands on its own, and it’s certainly not one that rises to meet Luhrmann’s potential. It’s a weak, transient film, a disappointing story about disappointments.
It’s also uncomfortably similar to Moulin Rouge, one of the many things that makes the film feel like a copy of Luhrmann’s better ideas. That film unfolded as a work written by a sad, bearded man reflecting on the love he’d lost, and The Great Gatsby is the same. The narrator and author this time is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who’s drying out at a sanitarium while getting his thoughts together and working with a therapist to come to peace with the events of the summer of 1922. Nick keeps a journal in which he writes the book that will become the film (and also, in our world, Fitzgerald’s novel), and soon enough he sets about recounting his adventures. There’s something slight and insubstantial about Maguire’s presence on screen in anything, and he’s similarly drifty here. As a narrator, he’s impossibly mannered, running an unconvincing northeastern drawl through Fitzgerald’s lines in a way that never stops feeling artificial and underscores the film’s general inability to sell itself. Luhrmann keeps the (often literal) fireworks going for the first act, though, as Nick, a bond trader living on Long Island, finds himself drawn into society life. Nick lives next door to the elusive Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), reclusive owner of a mansion that always has a party going on, and across a small bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). It’s Tom and Daisy’s poisoned marriage that ushers Nick into the broader world of privileged misdeeds, as one afternoon Tom whisks him away to a junky apartment in the city where they drink and carouse with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), Tom’s mistress, and a few other hangers-on. This low-rent party sequence feels like a real Luhrmann moment: sweaty and chaotic, shot through with nine kinds of music and the fluttery terror of acknowledging the sex in the room. For a few moments, everything actually syncs up.
The film keeps slipping, though. Luhrmann knows what he’s good at: visual pomp and heated confrontation. It’s getting from rock to rock across the river that he loses his footing. Before long, Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s, and Luhrmann’s gift for spectacle turns the whole thing into a perfect bacchanal of booze and hip-hop that pivots into light shows and Gershwin when Gatsby himself shows up. Once Gatsby reveals his real motives to Nick, though — Gatsby is Daisy’s former love, and his shows are all to try and catch her attention — the film becomes a repetitive and often dead-aired story about a guy trying to win back his ex. Gatsby’s first meeting with Daisy after their time apart is shockingly dull, especially given how good Luhrmann’s proved he can be showing two people cautiously and fearfully explore each other’s feelings. (He’s even done scenes like that with DiCaprio.) In The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann’s great at fleeting moments that roughly correspond to theme; he’s a lot worse at connecting those moments into a story.
Time and again, Luhrmann seems to work against himself. The reliance on Nick’s narration isn’t just a nod to the book, but a crutch that often renders the film too basic. Prose paints a picture, but so does film, and we rarely need both in tandem. In one instance, Daisy is laughing with Gatsby when she suddenly begins crying, and Nick clumsily narrates that her pensiveness comes from her time away from the man she used to know. Mulligan and DiCaprio are more than capable of acting out that moment. They don’t need the neon sign, and neither does the viewer. Ironically, Luhrmann’s made a Cliff’s Notes version of a novel assigned to high schoolers. Rather than an adaptation, it almost feels like an appendix, a sketched-out version of the story propped up by a distracted director.
Some of Luhrmann’s choices work, though. His use of hip-hop and modern covers is right in line with his penchant for rearranging space and time in his own filmic universes, from the pop-heavy Romeo + Juliet to the unironic jukebox of Moulin Rouge. Jay-Z, who serves as executive producer, also produced the soundtrack and has a song in the film, as does Beyonce. Hip-hop’s a good choice here, too. So much of the genre is about representing power and wealth when those things aren’t there, about tying identity to location, and the vibe fits with Gatsby’s shifty backstory and the general air of class-derived ignorance that dooms most of the characters. Similarly, he’s got a solid cast in play. DiCaprio, who’s making a career out of playing crazy men driven by delusion, is charismatic and sad as Gatsby, while Mulligan is appropriately excited or nervous as needed. Edgerton’s a towering brute as Tom, and he and DiCaprio make good enemies as the film builds toward their inevitable war for Daisy. Not for Daisy’s affections, either, but Daisy herself. She’s a prize to be won here, happy to stare idly as Gatsby and Tom fight for control. The film is about how people use others for their own success or actualization, and Luhrmann makes lot of these scenes (again, the heated confrontations that mirror that loving excess) hit home. The best moment in the film is when Luhrmann dispenses with visual gimmicks and focuses on these two men circling each other like bulls.
Yet it’s not enough. Luhrmann’s film is loud and expansive, yes, but it’s also more than a little thick-headed and afraid of trusting the viewer to pay emotional attention. Nick describes how Gatsby’s whole shtick is just a front to win back Daisy, then Gatsby says it again, then again, then we hear it repeated in the narration some more. The green dock light that shines from Tom and Daisy’s estate across the bay and into Gatsby’s haunted dreams is brought up again and again, its fragile symbolism of loss and longing bludgeoned by a film that would rather be obvious than anything else. It’s not that these things aren’t good points to make, but that Luhrmann feels so unsure of how to make them. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who was asked in the early 1970s to adapt The Great Gatsby, called the book a mirage, but maybe what he meant is that ideas about yearning are so powerful that it takes a light hand — an almost invisible touch — to evoke them without feeling cheap or trite. Luhrmann’s still a ringmaster of a certain type of moviemaking, but his touch here is anything but light. He wants to take us across the bay, but instead of beating on against the current, he drowns us in it.