great gatsby

Dir. Baz Luhrmann
(2013, PG-13, 143 minutes)

The Great Gatsby is a good fit for director Baz Luhrmann, who continues to pursue the theme of doomed love that also marked his previous films Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, and whose exaggerated, impressionistic style is well suited to capture an era of excess and a feeling of love that ultimately proves as unsustainable as the world it’s set in. He doesn’t show us what life was like in the Roaring Twenties. He shows us what it might have felt like during such a period of unquestioned prosperity. And when the characters experience their crushing heartbreak, it foretells the looming societal downfall of the Great Depression.

Luhrmann artfully captures imagery that resonate with deeper meaning, including the green beacon of light that shines across the bay, representing for its title character, mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a distant hope, a lambent fixation on a love and a future that exists more in his imagination than in the real world. When the image recurs throughout the film, it evokes sadness; it seems no matter how he reaches, the light will never be any less faraway.

tobey gatsbyThe film suffers, however, in its characterizations. Though Lurhmann creates a vivid and enveloping setting, that larger-the-life approach reduces characters to broad types. Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who married Gatsby’s true love Daisy (Carey Mulligan), is little more than a loutish villain. Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) is a one-dimensional floozy. And though the core characters – Gatsby, Daisy, and hopeless romantic Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) – are drawn in subtler tones, the film doesn’t quite have the nuance to reveal much more than their surface characteristics.

Rapper Jay-Z provides much of the music for the film, which also has in common with Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge its love of anachronism. It’s a great idea, and Luhrmann, in his previous films, was skilled at layering contemporary motifs over period concepts. However, I wished he used the modern music more consistently in Gatsby. When a familiar track is suddenly cued on the soundtrack, it feels self-conscious, and when the music is overly familiar – like Alicia Keys‘s ubiquitous “Empire State of Mind” hook played over a shot of the New York skyline – the effect can be cliché.

Luhrmann’s much more successful when he’s drawing a contemporary sound from lesser-known songs and covers, which are more easily woven into the fabric of the film than radio hits we’ve heard before. Because if there’s something I don’t want from a filmmaker as idiosyncratic as Luhrmann, it’s the familiar.