There are few stranger cinematic weddings that that of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby to Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top, nearly grating visual aesthetic. The fact that Luhrmann’s adaptation is in 3D is icing on the cake. But Luhrmann (best known for William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge) is at his best when he’s got a story to anchor his visuals to, and performers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgerton delivering the lines. His Great Gatsby is far from a definitive version of the novel, but it has its moments. My review of the Blu-ray follows after the jump.
With a wraparound segment devised by Luhrmann, Nick Carraway (Maguire) starts the film in a sanitarium trying to dry out. His doctor asks him to write what happened, which allows Luhrmann to incorporate much of Fitzgerald’s language, sometimes shown on screen. In the past, Carraway was working as a stockbroker when he’s invited to meet his cousin Daisy (Mulligan), who’s married to Tom Buchanan (Edgerton). While dining with he meets Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), who becomes his sort of love interest and mentions that he lives next door to Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), who has the biggest parties in all of New York. This causes discord as Daisy knows Gatsby. Nick goes out with Tom, and the two party with Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) and her friends. And though it’s supposed to be a debaucherous night of drinking, like so much of what Luhrmann does, it has a more cocaine/ecstasy feel to it. In fact, like much of the movie.
Nick is invited to one of Gatsby’s parties and finally meets the man who has the whole town whispering. No one knows where Jay Gatsby got his money, or what happened in his past, but that Jay wants to get close to Nick gives him a leg up socially. What Gatsby really wants is for Nick to have an afternoon tea with Daisy so he can reacquaint himself with Nick’s cousin. It turns out the two had a relationship before the war, and Gatsby doesn’t believe she loves Tom. And he also believes that the past can be recreated.
If Luhrmann found his way in, it’s that his recreation of the Jazz Age, of people living on a soap bubble that is doomed to pop, and who behave gluttonously either in spite or because of that knowledge, the excess achieves a certain purpose, even if it – like the work of Michael Bay – hits a point where there is no sense of ebb and flow so much as a constant and steady stream of overwhelming imagery that proves exhuasting. But where Bay often becomes the star of his own movies (at least in the Transformers films), here both Mulligan and DiCaprio do good work — if you can divorce yourself from Fitzgerald’s novel, as this does a better job of capturing the bare narrative points than the nuance.
Boiled down to its essence, Luhrmann gets a point across that seems to capture the famous Fitzgerald quote: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” That sense of the separation between the moneyed and the less well off, those who came from funds, and those who are self-made makes for the film’s backbone. That class distinction is immutable in the film, and those who buck against it will eventually be destroyed. There’s that and the tragic romance at the center of the film, and though Luhrmann’s camera gets in the way of this narrative, DiCaprio’s performance is well realized and he does as good a job playing Jay Gatsby as anyone has. Some things don’t work as well cinematically, and this was never going to translate into something better than the novel, but the film does achieve its own tone and the narrative does have power. But getting past the visual design (or sinking into it) takes a long time. This isn’t great art, but for Luhrmann, it’s easily the best thing he’s ever done.
Warner Brothers Blu-ray comes with a DVD and digital copy, while the film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. Though there’s no commentary, there are eleven featurettes on the film, which do a very good job of covering a lot of ground. It starts with “The Greatness of Gatsby” (9 min.), which explains how Luhrmann came to make the movie, and is followed by “’Within and Without’ with Tobey Maguire” (9 min.), which shows off behind the scenes footage shot by the star. It’s followed by “The Swinging Sounds of Gatsby” (12 min.), which offers comments from Jay-Z and Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch. “The Jazz Age” (15 min.) offers footage and narration from the Ric Burns documentary New York to give a greater context to the film, then there’s a section on the costumes with “Razzle Dazzle: The Fashions of the ‘20s (16 min.), and ‘Fitzgerald’s Visual Poetry” (7 min.), which speaks to how Luhrmann translated to the book to the big screen.
The section “Gatsby Revealed” offers featurettes on five of the film’s set-pieces “Gatsby’s Party” (7 min.), “Disconcerting Ride” (5 min.), “Daisy and Gatsby Meet” (8 min.), “The Plaza” (4 min.) and “Pool Scene” (6 min.). This feels like something done for an In-Movie Experience type feature, but they didn’t do that with this film. These featurettes are followed by three deleted scenes with introductions by the director (14 min.), all of what was cut was cut for a reason. The disc closes out with a trailer for the 1926 silent version, a film that has been lost to time, and only this trailer survives.