Style suffocates substance in this flashy, overly extravagant adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic.
Adhering (for the most part) to the plot of the famous novel, “The Great Gatsby” introduces us to Jay Gatsby, a millionaire of mysterious means who throws extremely lavish parties for unknown reasons. Everyone who is anyone attends, yet no one seems to know Gatsby themselves. Living next door is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who watches the proceedings from afar. After receiving an invitation to attend one night, Carraway slowly gets pulled into Gatsby’s hedonistic world.
It’s not long before Carraway realizes that Gatsby’s motivations are romantic in nature. The house Gatsby lives in is located directly across the bay from Carraway’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). It’s revealed that Gatsby and Daisy were romantically involved before Gatsby was shipped off to war. The problem now is that Daisy is married (to Tom Buchanan, played by Joel Edgerton). Even though her husband is unfaithful himself, Daisy can’t bring herself to leave him. Worse yet, as things come to a head, the question of who Gatsby really is and how he really got his money comes into play.
It’s patently obvious that director Baz Luhrmann was drawn to this project due to the period piece style potential and the tragic romantic elements. Roaring 20’s flappers dance about under confetti showers, souped up coupes roar around, and Gatsby’s estate is displayed in all its extravagant glory. Anachronistic modern music seeps in as Luhrmann revels in the partying to the point where it feels like a music video at times. When the romance begins to enter the picture, there are walls of flowers, fluttering, falling shirts, and Carey Mulligan’s doe eyes in all their doe eyed glory.
Unfortunately, the style outweighs the substance here, considerably. Unlike the novel, where you’re left to infer themes, motivations, etc, Luhrmann’s film spells things out for the viewer (occasionally literally) so that nothing will be missed. Maguire’s narration occasionally uses what I assume were passages that were directly lifted from the novel, but as they’re cherry picked out of many, and isolated and illustrated, it’s a little bit harder to escape their meaning than it would be to a reader. As such, I had the feeling I was being talked down to, a bit. Hit over the head if you will. Kind of like a movie cliff notes version of the novel, where an interpretation is handed to you on a platter. That’s not a positive attribute for a film to have, especially one based on a piece of classic literature.
It’s not to say the movie is without merit. The stylistic vision of the 1920s is occasionally entrancing, DiCaprio makes a great Gatsby (LOL), and it does benefit from being based on such great material. But at a runtime of nearly two and a half hours (2:23), it overstays its welcome a bit. Having everything spelled out and handed to you (in terms of meaning), while so much attention is paid to the visual style, ultimately adds up to a film that feels a little… empty.