Baz does it big. Subtlety is not a word in Baz Luhrmann's lexicon, as the Australian director has proven time and again in his small cadre of films. 'Moulin Rouge' and 'Australia' stand as prime examples of the bold, glitzy, kitchen sink style that both distinguishes and often engulfs his work, with even the low-budget, high camp 'Strictly Ballroom' brandishing a manic, over-the-top edge. So it's not surprising Luhrmann might be attracted to the high-living, out-of-control Roaring Twenties and the era's fictional poster boy, the dashing and mysterious Jay Gatsby. A symbol of wealth, excess, and devastating glamour, Gatsby fits Luhrmann like an Armani suit, and the director's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel celebrates the drunken decadence, sky-high spirits, and reckless attitudes of The Jazz Age with his trademark love-it-or-hate-it flair.
Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby' is an orgy of flashy images, green-screen technology, and unbridled passion that's both involving and off-putting, dazzling and sloppy. The director obviously respects the Fitzgerald text and honors it with a faithful script, but tries too hard to put his personal stamp on the material, at times taking the period out of this period piece.
Though 'The Great Gatsby' is timeless in its depiction of lavish living, selfish disregard, obsession, power, desperation, and unrequited love, even timelessness can be compromised when a period setting is stressed by contemporary conventions. For example, how can you accurately depict The Jazz Age when people are frenetically dancing the Charleston to the overdubbed hip-hop stylings of Jay-Z (especially when the on-screen musicians are playing instruments that don't exist on the soundtrack)? A modern love theme accompanying a romantic montage works better, but Luhrmann's innate need to flip an iconic work on its ear sometimes backfires, and the reason this 'Gatsby' takes so long to get going is due to the sensory barrage that assaults us from the opening frames.
Too much technique and too much artifice sabotage the film's first half, and while I get that Luhrmann's style mirrors his interpretation of this "too much" era, his execution continually (sledge)hammers the point home. When Baz finally backs down and allows the story to steal focus during the last hour (a scene in a Plaza Hotel suite crackles with simmering tensions and the 'Sunset Boulevard' climax is a stunner), 'The Great Gatsby' at last becomes a riveting cinematic experience, and the impact of Fitzgerald's prose shines through. (One of Luhrmann's smart decisions was superimposing lines of the novel's text across the screen during the film's latter stages.)
Seen through the eyes of the worshipping Nick (Tobey Maguire), who calls his mysterious nouveau riche neighbor "the single most hopeful person I've ever met," 'The Great Gatsby' incisively comments on the aimlessness of a lost society numbed by the trappings of privilege. Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a self-made man with a questionable background and notorious reputation who throws outlandishly lavish parties at his outlandishly lavish Long Island estate, all so he can entice lost love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), now married to the macho, philandering magnate Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), back into his arms. With his all or nothing, sink or swim personality, the fatally glamorous, impeccably poised Gatsby, who loves to call even his enemies "Old Sport," teeters on the edge of emotional and financial destruction, his empire and well-being both dependent on unhealthy liaisons that test his steely resolve.
The success of 'Gatsby' hinges not on the tale, but on the telling, and that's where Fitzgerald's work has stumbled in its numerous film adaptations. If Luhrmann exercised more restraint and permitted this classic story to speak for itself from beginning to end, he might have come closest to capturing the novel's elusive spirit, for he seems to possess a true affinity for the material. His shenanigans, however, derail the production almost instantly, and by falling victim to the self-indulgence he so dutifully chronicles on screen, it takes him far too long to get the film back on track.
Yet the fault is not entirely Luhrmann's. The cast also tends to go overboard, favoring histrionics over nuance. The usually reliable DiCaprio makes a dapper Gatsby - his introductory shot is straight out of Golden Age Hollywood (see raised glass photo below) - but until he exposes his dark side, his performance seems a bit stilted. Maguire exudes the proper boyish charm to make a believable Nick in the early sequences, yet has trouble projecting the jaded disillusionment that's such a vital aspect of his character toward the end. Though not as breathtakingly lovely as some might imagine Daisy, Mulligan asserts herself well, especially in the pivotal Plaza Hotel scene where she at last shows her true colors. Her chemistry with DiCaprio, however, is somewhat lacking, making their romance feel robotic.
There's never been a truly satisfactory film version of 'The Great Gatsby,' and maybe that's because the book is so perfect. It's hard to compete with Fitzgerald's masterful prose, and though Luhrmann obviously reveres the material, he doesn't respect it enough to resist the urge to tinker with it. And that's a shame. In the end, it's so ironic that a film that wallows in and celebrates excess leaves us with the feeling that it could have been - and should have been - so much more.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 2013 edition of 'The Great Gatsby' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. In addition to the Blu-ray disc, the standard-def DVD and instruction leaflet for the Ultraviolet Digital Copy also are included. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, an anti-tobacco PSA, Ultraviolet promo, and previews for '42,' 'Gravity,' 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,' and 'Prisoners' precede the static menu with music.
Let me get one thing off my chest right away: Watching 'The Great Gatsby' in 2D is a far better experience than seeing it in 3D...at least it was for me. Without all the distracting pop-up elements vying for attention and adding a cartoonish quality to what should be a very serious film, I was able to more fully absorb the nuances of character and immerse myself in the setting of this fascinating, delicately woven tale. Yes, the CGI is just as noticeable here as it is in the 3D version, but it's not so in-your-face that it draws your focus away from the on-screen drama. In 2D, 'The Great Gatsby' is less manic, less artificial, and more engrossing. Subtleties that are lost in 3D are easier to discern here, and the entire film seems more cohesive.
The flat edition, like its 3D cousin, sports not a hint of grain, yet images seem sharper and crisper, and colors flaunt a heavier level of saturation and warmth. Struck from a pristine print, Warner's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is antiseptically clean and possesses plenty of pop, with strong contrast heightening the impact of all the picture components. Hues are bright and bold, especially the green foliage and red lipstick, while delicate pastels exude an airy feel. Blacks are rich and deep, whites are strong and resist blooming, and fleshtones look more natural and stable than they do in 3D. Background elements, such as the paintings on the cluttered mansion walls, are strikingly sharp; shadow delineation is quite good, with no instances of crush; and patterns remain rock solid without a single errant shimmer. Close-ups, too, are marvelously vivid, displaying fine facial features well.
I'm a fan of 3D, but the 2D transfer of 'The Great Gatsby' outshines the more dimensional version. All the opulence and vivid color, without any superfluous distractions, are beautifully showcased, enhancing both the viewing experience and, quite surprisingly, the film itself.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track makes good use of the surround channels, with subtle ambient effects often bleeding into the rears. Rain is especially well rendered, and accents such as fireworks and ice chipping are crisp and potent. Stereo separation up front is often distinct, and a wide dynamic scale generally handles everything that's thrown at it. Even the most cacophonous sequences never sound muddied, as the meticulous mix prioritizes the various audio segments well. I did notice a slight bit of occasional distortion during Maguire's overdubbed narration, but it didn't intrude too heavily upon the rest of the track. Bass frequencies provide a good amount of weight, with roaring roadster engines and the thumping beat of Jay Z's music rumbling through the soundscape.
Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand - even DiCaprio's quiet whispers come across well - and the various music styles all benefit from superior fidelity and tonal depth. Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' beautifully fills the room, while the more pulsating strains of contemporary music commandeer all the speakers for a truly enveloping experience.
This track is chock full of many competing elements, but sorts them all out to produce a cohesive mix that's lively, bright, and often bold.
A thorough supplemental package enhances this release. There's no audio commentary, but you'll get plenty of Baz in the numerous featurettes.
The fourth time isn't the charm. Though Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of 'The Great Gatsby' has merit, especially during its dark last hour, this glitzy, often garish adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic can't be considered the definitive version. By favoring style over substance and adding too many contemporary elements, this manic film lacks the laser focus required to capture the elegance, underlying power, and lingering resonance of this iconic American tale. 'The Great Gatsby' doesn't just chronicle one man's obsession with a lost love and thirst for attention and respect, it paints a damning portrait of a wild, selfish era and the frivolous people who populate it. Luhrmann tries his best to honor Fitzgerald's agenda, but in an ironic twist, his own self-indulgence ultimately brings the film down. Sparkling video that's better than its 3D counterpart, strong audio - although you might not like some of what you hear on the hip-hop soundtrack - and plenty of supplements make this an attractive package. Far from the disaster some purport it to be, this 'Gatsby' just might grow on you through subsequent viewings and definitely deserves a look. But if you're searching for the real Jay Gatsby, the only place you'll find him is on your bookshelf.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.