In Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, shiny cars move like cartoons through the lush greenery of the Eggs; even the natural world is dripping in excess. His valley of ashes spins with so much hot, dirty dust that if you see the 3D version, as I did, you may be tempted to cough. And Gatsby himself, with his “tan skin” which was “drawn attractively tight” on his face – an unforgettable detail from the book – is noticeably, almost laughably, accurate.
The film is as visually excessive as promised – loud and colorful, set to a backdrop of perfectly-coordinated glitzy costumes, CGI scenery, and hip hop music. We know what we are getting, to some extent, when we buy a ticket to a Luhrmann film. Yet, the novel is so heartbreaking — not only in spite of, but because of, the excess — that I wondered whether Luhrmann would succeed in capturing Fitzgerald’s nuance of tragedy within opulence. Or would it just be one big party, with a twist at the end?
Leonardo DiCaprio excels in a notoriously difficult role, a role colored by almost 100 years of hype. The real Gatsby is obscure and debatable; he represents so many failed efforts, lost ideals, cultural divides, and endless faults, that it is difficult to imagine the actual face of a man so…faceless, yet so presumably beautiful. There is a painful humanity to Gatsby too, that cannot be gleaned from just one sentence in Fitzgerald’s novel, but rather is felt as a whole, and therefore made even more difficult for an actor to embody. DiCaprio impressively does the job, leaving us spinning, feeling both drawn in and repelled by James Gatz, who is just a man after all.
Tobey Maguire works well as the inconsistent Nick Carraway. Through his career, Maguire seems to walk the line between likeable and unlikeable, attractive and at times painfully awkward. Carraway, for all his involvement in the story, is almost never interesting. Compliment or not, Maguire can play this role. Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan are wonderful surprises. Edgerton somehow makes you give a hoot about Buchanan, who by all accounts, is just a brash, Nazi-sympathizing, preppy blowhard. But one must care about him in some way for the story to work, for in caring about Tom’s storyline we in turn care about Myrtle, then Daisy, then Gatsby.
As the film rushes on, Luhrmann manages to capture the fleeting, melancholy nature of a party — already ended before it has begun — and moves us at top speed towards the inevitable, disastrous end. Luhrmann harnesses all his glitter and bass beats to lure us toward the edge, toward the ultimate consequence of paths that are both careless and foolish. No, you cannot repeat the past, and that past makes us who we are, no matter how many parties we throw to try and change it. The over-the-top excess of Luhrmann’s style only pushes that point home harder, leaving us with a thick, depressing hangover, and Fitzgerald’s last lines lingering on the screen in a heartbreaking loneliness.