Here’s what Baz Luhrmann does better than anyone: crazy, chaotic party scenes and wonderful non-speaking sequences scored and edited in a way that shows a deep understanding of music. In these, what he delivers in this latest Gatsby is wonderful; restrained for him, just right in execution, and without the angina-inducing jitters of the same types of sequences in Moulin Rouge.
Here’s what he’s ok at: casting. Sometimes, he gets it just right. Here, it’s the wondrous discovery of Elizabeth Debicki, playing Jordan Baker. This Aussie beauty, with only one small role in a Down Under comedy under her belt, owns every frame she’s in; you can’t take your eyes off her. And it’s not just looks; she has a wonderful Uma-esque slinkiness combined, in this make-up, with the large, wanton eyes of an Edward Gorey flapper (I’m thinking “The Curious Sofa”). Next to her, Cary Mulligan’s Daisy fades into the background.
But that’s not a bad thing, and in fact, I think Mulligan’s casting is spot-on. Rich girls are blessed with impeccable grooming and good complexions from never, ever having to worry about money; more often than not, their gene pool is too crystal clear to produce the true beauties that come from shady ancestral mixes. Mulligan’s good in pretty much everything, always vulnerable, and here she brittles up her voice to nice effect. Her Daisy’s insubstantial, self-pitying, and continually distracted from her alligator tears by the shiniest available object.
In this case, that’s DiCaprio, another good casting choice, and for once the actor’s inability to convincingly do any accent makes sense. He’s a beautiful man, and no one can quite convey the belief in possibility the way he can as he gazes with undisguised confidence with those fine blue eyes. When Luhrmann introduces him, Rhapsody in Blue swelling in the background and fireworks literally bursting overhead, it’s a cinematic coup of rare, brassy nerve. The audience at my screening laughed with what sounded like joy, not derision, at the audacity, which somehow managed to have both a cornpone earnestness and a giddy delight in its corniness. Hard to imagine anyone but Luhrmann attempting it, and anyone but DiCaprio nailing the landing with such precision.
It’s neither of their faults, nor Mulligan’s, that the characters are cardboard, albeit nicely described cardboard; it’s Fitzgerald’s. In her essay in New York, Kathryn Scultz points out the book’s failings and her dislike of it. (Huzzah. I feel the same way about Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. High school is the right place for all three of them.) One major reason is that the characters stand for things, but can’t stand on their own. There’s no there there, and zero reason to give a rat’s ass about any one of them. In one of the nicer lines of the book, quoted directly by Toby Maguire as a competent but uninteresting Nick Carroway, Fitzgerald calls Daisy and Tom “thoughtless people.” Do any of the characters have anything resembling a thought? Tom (Joel Edgerton has more swagger than Bruce Dern ever did, but he looks like Mr. Buchanan must’ve plucked him out of a gutter and shoved him into a polo game) is an asshole and doesn’t care who he hurts. Myrtle (Isla Fisher) looks good in torn stockings, and we don’t really give a shit about her. Jay and Daisy are ciphers. If we want them together, it’s simply because DiCaprio is so darn handsome and we’re still hoping we can help recover from the devastation he suffered in Gilbert Grape.
That leaves us with lovely Jordan and a party scene that gets chopped in half—it’s obviously the same party, because who could support the budget to film such a thing twice? Those are the fun parts, and the rest is a lot of earnest and reverent quoting of a book that moves well enough on paper, but stays paper flat when translated to the screen. And Luhrmann bizarrely repeats himself; having nicely condensed Gatsby’s back story into a quick flashback, he then has Maguire recount it toward the end of the movie. Maguire’s frequent voice over weighs down something that needs all the help it can get to fly.
Still, it’s not that big of a surprise. Luhrmann needs music. He makes spectacular, unparalleled, and emotionally powerful music videos, then strings them together into movies that are too long. If this one doesn’t produce the migraines of Moulin Rouge and R&J, it shows that beneath it all, Luhrmann has an old-fashioned, even stodgy sensibility when he’s not working with a soundtrack. His wonderful sense of humor, other than that awesome introduction of Gatsby, is sadly not on display.
One can only hope that this is termed the definitive Gatsby and that no one will try to make it again. There are, after all, many wonderful novels still waiting for their close-ups; Dawn Powell, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow, Jeanette Winterson are just a few folks with grand stories just begging for cinematic breath. And please: cast Elizabeth Debicki in at least a few of them.