Set against the Jazz Age of 1920’s America, we peer out into this vibrant world through the innocent eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), as he becomes embroiled and fervently absorbed in the life of his neighbour; a charming and self-indulgent enigma who calls himself Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws immense parties that attracts just about everyone in town. With money, power – and a lot of friends – it seems there is just one thing Gatsby doesn’t have: a woman. However this is where Carraway comes in, as the catalyst for his new acquaintance to meet his dear and beguiling cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), ignoring the fact she is married to the wealthy, authoritarian Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
If there is one thing you can say about Luhrmann’s Gatsby, is that it’s an incredible spectacle, as you become immersed in this vivacious environment, as a world that can only belong to Baz Luhrmann. However here is an example of all style and no substance, as the setting becomes the key component, overwhelming the viewer somewhat as you lose touch with the story at hand. The elaborate, pompous setting is so overblown that is disallows for any intimacy to the tale, and at the very core of this story is a wretched, anguished romance, and we simply feel too far removed from it – in that respect bearing similarities to Anna Karenina last year. On occasion it does feel like Luhrmann is showing off too, though in a sense the epic quality that exists does, to an extent, serve a purpose, whereby it’s theatrical nature effectively shadows that of Gatsby himself, who, on the surface is a spirited and gallant individual, yet it’s a mere bravado, a façade for what truly lies beneath.
The soundtrack plays a very important role too – and it’s intriguingly implemented, however despite being atmospheric and certainly enhancing the big dancing set pieces and excessive house parties, it is distracting. The use of contemporary music in a period piece – with the likes of Kanye West and Jay Z included in the score, is not an issue as such – just take the ingenious use of David Bowie in Inglorious Basterds for instance. However, and although certainly a brave move by Luhrmann, to imply that the music is genuinely being played at the time simply doesn’t work. Not that this picture is reliant on any realism as such, but by doing this is merely detracts from whatever realism we had left to cling on to.
The one aspect Luhrmann did get right, however, is the casting, as DiCaprio does a worthy job of portraying one of the most important literary characters of all time. He just has this charm and affability that Gatsby requires, and it is essential we fall for him in the same way that Carraway does. Where DiCaprio excels most, is within the vulnerable side to his demeanour, as he has a fragility to him that allows for us to get into his head and empathise with his plight. Humanising a character otherwise decorated in a mysterious glory. Edgerton turns in the finest performance however, bringing an intensity and humility to the integral character of Tom.
Maguire, on the other hand, may not stand out quite as such, playing a character with rather little to do in comparison. Then again, he is a mere cipher, and the world goes on around him, not through him. In that respect Maguire is perfectly cast, as he has this everyday quality to him, and in all due respect, a somewhat forgettable screen presence, which we need in this instance. The story is not about him, we just use him to peer into this eccentric world, and any other actor may have stolen the show, and that’s not the point at all.
The Great Gatsby is by no means a bad production, it’s just somewhat disappointing given the expectations placed upon it, and the pedigree that comes behind the vast majority of cast and crew. It suffers mostly as a result of the viewer’s struggle to invest emotionally in this tale, and given the grand finale that exists, it’s such a frustrating shame to enter into the latter stages so apathetically. If you do find yourself growing bored with the tedium that exists however, then play The Great Gatsby guessing game – and see if you can figure out how many times they say the word “Gatsby” throughout this film. It’s 89, by the way.