Film review: The Great Gatsby is all glitter and no soul

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation, which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce, lacks the sense of melancholy and longing that emanated from Fitzgerald's novel

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures
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The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Isla Fisher, Amitabh Bachchan


If any piece of classic American literature should be depicted on film with wildly decadent and boldly inventive style, it's The Great Gatsby. After all, wasn't the character of Jay Gatsby himself a spinner of grandiose tales and a peddler of lavish dreams?

And Baz Luhrmann would seem like the ideal director to bring F Scott Fitzgerald's story to the screen, to breathe new life into those revered words, having shaken up cultural institutions previously with films such as Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet. This is the man who dared to stage the iconic balcony scene in a swimming pool.

But in Luhrmann's previous films, there existed a fundamental understanding of the stories he was telling; beneath their gorgeous trappings, they still reflected the heart and the purpose of the works from which they were drawn. His Great Gatsby is all about the glitter but it has no soul. And the fact that he's directed it in 3-D only magnifies the feeling of artificiality. His camera rushes and swoops and twirls through one elaborately staged bacchanal after another, but instead of creating a feeling of vibrancy, the result is repetitive and ultimately numbing. The 3-D holds you at arm's length, rendering the expensive, obsessive details as shiny and hollow when they should have been exquisite.

The year is 1922, and young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved into a cottage on the nouveau riche Long Island enclave of West Egg, with dreams of making it big on the New York Stock Exchange. Across the bay is the old-moneyed community of East Egg, where Nick's cousin, the dazzling socialite Daisy (Carey Mulligan), lives with her cheating, blue-blooded husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton).

But everyone, regardless of where they're from, gathers each weekend for wild parties at Gatsby's palatial abode, which is next door to Nick's humble house. The normally mysterious Gatsby befriends Nick with hopes of reconnecting with Daisy, the one who got away five years earlier. Mulligan's Daisy is more of an idea than a fully fleshed-out person, but then again, maybe that's always been the point: she's alluring but tantalisingly out of reach.

Gatsby, played with well-coiffed panache by Leonardo DiCaprio, too often comes off as a needy, clingy stalker rather than a tragic figure and a victim of the American dream. DiCaprio - despite the usual depth and edge he can bring to a role - comes off here as a parody of a Fitzgerald character.

Luhrmann's adaptation, which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce, lacks the sense of melancholy and longing that emanated from the novel, even though the script invokes Fitzgerald's prose early and often through voice-over from Maguire. Sometimes, as in the book's famous final sentence, the words pop right up on screen and linger in the air.

But something about hearing and seeing them in this fashion depletes them of the power they have on the written page.

* Christy Lemire

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