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, especially in 3D, which heightens the spectacle to dizzying degrees. (Why 'Gatsby' needs 3D is open to debate - it doesn't enhance the presentation or make the tale more intimate; in fact, I feel 3D tarnishes the story's elegance and distances us from its emotional core.) But gimmicky processes aside, Luhrmann, who obviously respects the Fitzgerald text and honors it with a faithful script, 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 3D edition of 'The Great Gatsby' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a 3D-enhanced holographic sleeve. Both the 3D Blu-ray and 2D Blu-ray discs sit on top of each other on the right side of the case (poor, cheap packaging on Warner's part), while the standard-def DVD and instruction leaflet for the Ultraviolet Digital Copy reside on the left side. Video codec is 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 and default audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the 3D Blu-ray disc is inserted into the player, a Blu-ray 3D promo and preview for 'Gravity' precede the static menu with music.
When I first saw 'The Great Gatsby' in 3D at a local multiplex, I felt the film possessed a hyper-processed, artificial look during its first half that totally took me out of the story. Overly intense and distracting, the 3D lent the movie a cartoonish quality that disrespected the original novel, vanquishing the lyricism and poetic tone that permeate Fitzgerald's work. The 3D wasn't gimmicky, it was just totally unnecessary for a serious drama, forcing the audience to concentrate on style rather than substance, and in the case of 'The Great Gatsby,' that's a crying shame. Though I must admit I'm becoming more and more a fan of 3D, not every motion picture benefits from its implementation. Call me crotchety, but it just doesn't belong here.
Nevertheless, after my theatrical experience, I was intrigued by the prospect of viewing the 3D version of 'Gatsby' in the home environment, and I'm happy to report it now flaunts a more subdued feel. Warner's 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 transfer still possesses plenty of pop, but the 3D Blu-ray provides more dimensional shading rather than in-your-face assaults. The smaller screen may tone everything down (I also found the film as a whole less garish and brassy), and that includes the color palette, which appears slightly more muted. A bit of pallor affects some scenes, and fleshtones occasionally look a little inflamed, but on the whole, hues are bright, bold, and nicely saturated, especially any green foliage and red lipstick. Delicate pastels exude an airy feel as well, while black levels are inky, whites resist blooming, and patterns remain rock solid without a single errant shimmer.
The pristine source material shows no signs of wear and grain is completely absent, so the image exudes a crisp texture that maximizes clarity, contrast, and depth. 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 though some 3D shots look a tad noisy, the bulk of 3D imagery remains clean and nicely defined. Confetti and streamers look especially good in 3D, as does the superimposed text from the novel, and fabrics, such as furs and tweeds, project a higher level of texture. Close-ups are marvelously vivid, displaying fine facial features well.
As 3D transfers go, this one can't compete with 'Hugo' (the gold standard, in my book), but it's a solid, smooth effort that's watchable, occasionally dazzling, and a notch above others in its class.
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. All the extras are in 2D and reside on the standard Blu-ray disc. 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. In 3D, the lavish production values often overload the senses and overshadow the story's finer points, but Warner's high-quality transfer minimizes the intrusions as much as possible. Audio is also strong - although you might not like some of what you hear on the hip-hop soundtrack - and plenty of supplements take us behind the scenes. 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.