Did Baz Luhrmann accomplish what he set out to do in his garish adaptation of Gatsby? Yes. Does he capture the central thrust of the book? Yes. Is this a good movie? No.
Bear with me while I make an extended analogy: The idea of scientific unfalsifiability, that something can’t be meaningfully spoken about, was famously summed up by legendary physicist Wolfgang Pauli who once quipped about a too-opaque paper of a student: “It’s not even wrong.” Luhrmann’s films are almost unbearably tacky and base, which should make dismissing them easy, except the degree to which this approach is apparently purposeful inoculates him against just such a criticism. Which is to say: Luhrmann’s work is unfalsifiable. He isn’t a bad filmmaker, he’s not even bad, and in The Great Gatsby he’s in top not-even-bad form.
He can convincingly convey precisely two attitudes: lurid and histrionic. His great advantage here should have been that those two items cover roughly 85 percent of the emotional landscape of this story (for a more forceful bit of heresy on how bad this book is than I can provide here, see Kathryn Shultz’s lovely “minority report“). A story with as heavy-handed a message as Fitzgerald’s Apollonian tale about how money is, like, bad and stuff should have fallen perfectly with the meager purview of our time’s greatest peddler of feeble, pedantic frippery, except he decides to place the crucial role of Nick Carroway in the doughy, moist fingers of Toby Maguire. Maguire doesn’t so much portray a partially detached, morally centered observer as he does a creepy, chinless scopophilac.
The soundtrack choices are stupefying and bizarre. He mixes roughly period-appropriate jazz with blasé hip-hop/R&B and hipster golden calves like Jack White and The xx seemingly at random, presumably out of some deranged conviction that this choice would be provocative and not merely distracting in the extreme. Imagine that Wes Anderson grew up on the Jersey Shore, then worked as a barista in Portland, then had a stroke, then picked the song list for a movie.
The film is as loud as possible in every way all the time. The performances are either electrocuted or South-Park-Goth-Kids level lugubrious. The swooping camera work grotesquely exaggerates the actors’ faces like hack-job Noh masks. The sets and costumes are either Louis XIV opulence, John Steinbeck abjection, or Arthur Miller shabby. Huge, phallic sports cars thrusting through traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge! Hysterical people sweeping ritzy dinnerware off tables! Weeping! Fireworks! Humping! Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for some reason! Seriously, Baz, even Spinal Tap had the savoir-faire to only turn the amps to 11 some of the time, I mean you gotta leave yourself someplace to go. Like an ’80s action movie with an inexorable and ultimately laborious procession of people getting stabbed, punched, and exploded, Gatsby aims to exhilarate, like an ice-water dousing, but instead only leaves the viewer numb and lethargic from exposure.
I suppose the mawkish, fatuous love story at the center of this film will appeal to a certain set (those that have only just outgrown Dora the Explorer). To the extent that Luhrmann is making movies for pubescent girls, then…bravo I guess. Go take a seat at the cynically rich table with Jerry Bruckheimer and Celine Dion. It’s only, can we stop thinking of you as a legitimate artist now?
This movie is terrible, but at least it only lasts 143 minutes. Luhrmann’s career, on the other hand, could span another couple of decades. Now there’s your great American tragedy.