A Tiffany diamond bought at Costco.

Full disclosure up front: I love the Fitzgerald novel. I love the literary construct of a first-person narrator who serves, for the reader, as both moral compass and inquisitive voyeur. I love its themes of yearning, for both societal- and self-acceptance and the illusory nature of “the grass is always greener.” And, I love Baz Luhrmann’s visual style and music vocabulary. BUT, after a two-year wait for this film, compounded with all the fuzz and buzz regarding its making, I must say that the movie left me with more disappointment than wow.

The pluses: Loved the costumes. Loved the music and mix of hip-hop with traditional and fusion jazz; I adore Brian Ferry. Loved the “look ma, no hands” bravado of Luhrmann’s camera and editing. But, only to a point. Now we get to the heart of my thoughts.

While the material seemed so tailored (and that’s the operative word) for Luhrmann’s visual style, it was inconsistent throughout the film. On the one hand, it was excessively distracting at the wild jazz- age soirées at Gatsby’s mansion to the point of being too choppy (and I realize that folks will think it appropriate for the drunken haze and tipsiness it creates in the viewer). On the other hand, Luhrmann’s vision was too skeletal and “traditional” in its narrative use to drive the dramatic tragedy to its conclusion.

[Read the Steve Pulaski Review of Gatsby Here]

This is particularly evident in Luhrmann’s invention of placing Nick Carraway at an asylum at the start of the picture to create the framework of his voice-over first-person narration. True, this literary devise is quite problematic to translate cinematically, but Luhrmann’s approach was traditional, predictable, and quite frankly boring. However, the use of 3D technology with Fitzgerald’s text, floating in the air and on screen as it slowly fades away, was wonderful, and effective, serving as an additional commentary on the ephemeral and malleable nature of memory.

Of course, the Casting of GATSBY would be key to its commercial and critical success. There are hits and misses here. The hits are too few, and too minor. The misses are fatal.

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan is spot-on. He captures our attention in every frame, and his introduction to us is astonishing. The same goes for our intro to Jay Gatsby himself (some 30 minutes into the picture, done in the classic Hollywood style). Edgerton/Buchanan’s masculine force, fertility, and brutality are a testament to the Darwinian success of blue-blood society. Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is also quite effective. Porcelain-like and delicate, she is a doll only good for display and “not to be played with.” I wish she was used more to drive the narrative — and the societal commentary – forward. Ditto for Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson. I cannot help but recall Karen Black’s memorable Myrtle, breaking her fists at the glass window in her failed attempts to call to Tom Buchanan, and her subsequent licking of her own blood as her desperate act of self-preservation.

While Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway was effective enough, it bordered on hero worship at times. Instead of Fitzgerald’s intent to convey societal disgust at the world, in general, and the yearning for hope and innocence in Gatsby, in particular, I think Sam Waterston was more successful and effective as Nick Carraway in this sense in the Redford/Farrow 1974 version. Leonardo DiCaprio, while an effective character actor, was passable as Jay Gatsby. Luhrmann’s introduction of him to us was most highly effective, and cinematically theatrical, and that golden smile, well, it could melt butter. Nonetheless, every time DiCaprio said “Old sport” I could not help but winch. It seemed so unnatural for DiCaprio, in contrast to the ease of Redford’s delivery of the same language.

Most regrettable is Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. I love Carey Mulligan. She is both beautiful and a most effective actor. However, Luhrmann failed to capture Daisy’s meretricious recklessness and equivocation in Carey Mulligan. I think it was the eye color, or maybe Mulligan’s eye brows which stood in too-much contrast to her blond hair. Je Ne sais pas ! She was beautiful, and oh so beautifully dressed. That Prada “chandelier” gown was stunning — though I did not care for the fur wrap — and the Tiffany hair band was delicious. BUT, the distance, frailty, and sheer delicateness that Mia Farrow achieved were simply not there on screen this time in Mulligan. Maybe she was too good an actress, and that the character of Daisy Buchanan needed a more delicate and insincere actress for the role? Maybe. I am quite hard-pressed to offer an alternative actress at the moment.

When I first learned that Baz Luhrmann was filming GATSBY in 3D, I thought, wow, this will be great, particularly in light of Luhrmann’s skill. While it was “good,” there were no “WOW” moments like in AVATAR or LIFE OF PI. The rain, the snow, in 3D was predictable. The conveyance of “yearning” and “reaching” was effective in 3D with the use of DiCaprio’s reach across “West Egg” to “East Egg” and to Daisy’s dock and green light across the water. We needed more of this to move that theme of longing and distance to new heights with the use of this “new” technology.

Could we not do more? The camera moving through space among the party decorations was predictable, and boring. “Please sir, I want some more.”

Most distracting was the CGI use of the exterior of Gatsby’s mansion. Too fake. True, while Jay Gatsby would have envisioned a garish and ostentatious abode, Luhrmann gives us a Disney princess castle which does not serve to move the narrative to its intended message. In contrast, I point out Quentin Tarantino’s use of Jamie Foxes “clothing choice” when he is freed in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Now — this is effective — with maximum comic punch.

Grade B+

Review by Armin Callo