This garish Gatsby is all frosting and no substance

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Great Gatsby
Now Playing, Galaxy
2 out of 5

For such a straightforward novel, Hollywood has had serious problems bringing The Great Gatsby to the big screen. The most notorious offender (until now) was the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow 1974 adaptation, a “Romeo & Juliet in the roaring ’20s” spectacular misread of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. If the book is a cautionary tale against the blind pursuit of the American Dream (and it is), the movie reduced the message to “pretty people also have problems”.

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby doubles down on the same approach. Not only is the film shallow and dull, it (attempts to) hide its imperfections with confetti and period-inaccurate tunes.

By the time the two-and-a-half hour extravaganza is over, dissatisfaction has settled in, along with the realization that the extra dollars you paid for 3-D were stolen from your wallet.

The true protagonist of The Great Gatsby has never been the lovelorn millionaire but writer-turned-stockbroker Nick Carraway (a terrible Tobey Maguire). Carraway is a sensible soul caught up in rich people’s games. As a neighbour to Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and cousin to Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the trophy wife of a ruthless tycoon, he’s in a unique position to make interesting things happen. Gatsby and Daisy were in a relationship years ago, until separated first by war and later, by the pursuit of financial safety. Now, Nick finds himself in plum position to reunite the couple, but should he?

Even though Gatsby’s great gestures could pass for romantic, his pinning for Daisy is creepy (buys a mansion across the lake from his beloved, throws Diddy-like parties on regular basis hoping Daisy will attend.) Tragically, the object of his affection is flakier than he remembers, and her husband (Joel Edgerton) is far craftier than Jay would like to believe. Given Gatsby’s penchant for romanticizing his surroundings, reality is bound to come crashing down on him (fore-shades of the 1929 market tumble).

As a filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann is a great production designer and his films Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom are gaudy spectacles. Romeo + Juliet is above average only because he had the Shakespeare clutch to relay on. Luhrmann attempts a similar approach with The Great Gatsby by shoehorning long passages of the book into the script, but instead of dressing up the proceedings, it just makes them duller.

Without a director capable of digging into Gatsby’s distinctive qualities, the cast flounders. Jay Gatsby should have been Leonardo Di Caprio’s definitive performance, but the actor fails to sink his teeth in the character: Instead of embodying the myth of the self-made man, Di Caprio plays Gatsby as a geeky teenager with a large allowance. Maguire is the worst offender: His earnestness, so fitting in the Spider-Man saga, feels phony. With so little attention paid to them, the usually excellent Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton go to waste as one-note cardboard figures (heck, even the stiff Farrow was a better Daisy).

The one saving grace is Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan, but the stunt casting lasts one lousy scene.

You know your movie has problems when the incidental music becomes the most remarkable aspect of it. The recklessness of the ’20s goes wonderfully with some Jay-Z, Kanye West and Bryan Ferry’s splendid decadence. Only in the rare moments when Luhrmann’s excess and the hedonistic soundtrack coincide does The Great Gatsby come alive.