First Reviews on ‘The Great Gatsby’: Tough Break, Old Sport

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

The summer movie season is supposed to be about blockbusters. Big action spectacles, broad comedies, sci-fi epics with loads of CGI, digitally-animated fare for the whole family – that's what you expect to see dominating the Multiplexes during the warner months. So can a story based on a classic novel about the ultimate failure of an American dreamer make a dent in this sort of a market?

Maybe, if you have Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead and Baz Luhrmann whipping the material into a spectacular big screen frenzy. But the initial reviews suggest Luhrmann's take on "The Great Gatsby" isn't likely to be the massive hit Warner Bros. was hoping for, at least not with critics.

The initial reviews on Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age classic about a self-made millionaire's search for his lost love, which opens in theaters on May 10, so far features one genuinely enthusiastic notice (with certain reservations) from Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter, while the other reviews so far range from mixed to downright hostile.

Nearly everyone has a strong opinion about director Luhrmann's extravagant style, filled with loud music, lavish costumes, and constant movement of both characters and the cameras. McCarthy, unlike many, believes this works to the story's advantage. "As is inevitable with the Australian showman, who's never met a scene he didn't think could be improved by more music, costumes, extras and camera tricks, this enormous production begins by being over-the-top and moves on from there," McCarthy writes. "But, given the immoderate lifestyle of the title character, this approach is not exactly inappropriate, even if it is at sharp odds with the refined nature of the author's prose."

McCarthy goes on to say, "No matter how frenzied and elaborate and sometimes distracting his technique may be, Luhrmann's personal connection and commitment to the material remains palpable, which makes for a film that, most of the time, feels vibrantly alive while remaining quite faithful to the spirit, if not the letter or the tone, of its source."

However, what McCarthy sees as the film's greatest asset is its most serious flaw, according to Scott Foundas at Variety. "What Luhrmann grasps even less than previous adapters of the tale is that Fitzgerald was, via his surrogate [Nick] Carraway, offering an eyewitness account of the decline of the American empire, not an invitation to the ball," Foundas writes. "But Luhrmann identifies far more strongly with [Jay] Gatsby than he does with Nick, and instead of a tragic figure undone by his false optimism and unrequited yearning, the character becomes an object of envy —someone whose swank mansion and runway couture would be awfully nice to call one’s own. So the champagne flows like monsoon rain and the wild parties roar. Who cares if you’re doomed to meet an untimely end, so long as you go out looking fabulous?"

The often-acerbic David Denby at The New Yorker has even less use for Luhrmann's flash and filigree. "Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste," Denby writes.

Anne Thompson at IndieWire thinks "The Great Gatsby" works as eye candy, writing, "If Luhrmann's cameras swooped and whirled in 'Moulin Rouge,' their digital counterparts fly in 'Gatsby,' skimming along the shimmering waters of Long Island Sound, above the skyscrapers of Manhattan and over Jay Gatsby's gleaming yellow roadster speeding down the roadways between the city and his gold turreted West Egg mansion."

But Thompson isn't impressed by DiCaprio's performance as Jay Gatsby, and concludes, "Finally this overproduced slimmest of narratives becomes repetitive, at two hours and 23 minutes, as we revisit the sumptuous set pieces, Gatsby looking longingly across the water toward Daisy's glowing green dock, and hear yet another iteration of the morphing Gatsby backstory until, finally, we reach Fitzgerald's last words, from the novel: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'"

Alonso Duralde at The Wrap expressed genuine weariness with the visual approach and what he called "Baz Luhrmann’s uniquely ADHD-fueled supervision," but saved his greatest venom for the actors. "It doesn't help that the cast feels like they're in different movies — and none of them are movies you'd particularly want to see," Duralde wrote. "The blank and reactive [Tobey] Maguire and [Carey] Mulligan are cast as the blank and reactive Nick and Daisy, the result being such a vortex of nothing that they threaten to disappear from the screen entirely. [Joel] Edgerton perspires and chews the scenery in his best Snidely Whiplash manner, while DiCaprio has a fluctuating accent that often sounds like it's being delivered through a mouthful of marshmallows. DiCaprio's utterances of Gatsby's pet endearment 'old sport' become more and more cringe-worthy with each repetition."

And Drew McWeeny's HitFlix review is headlined, "Luhrmann's 'Great Gatsby' is okay and nothing more; It's exactly the film you think it is, for better and for worse," and his ambivalence seemed to evolve into hostility in his write-up. "I don't hate ['The Great Gatsby'], either, but I can't really recommend anything about it," McWeeny writes. "It is professionally made and entirely limp, a gorgeous piece of craft hung on a nothing of a script, a prime case of how you can throw all the best intentions in the world at a project and none of it matters if it just doesn't click, chemistry-wise. There was never a moment in the film where I was anything less than aware that these were actors playing dress-up on expensive and completely artificial sets, and certain performances (Jason Clarke being a prime offender) are so far over the line into melodrama that I couldn't take any of it seriously."

None of this bodes well for "The Great Gatsby" on its opening weekend, especially since "Iron Man 3" seems likely to keep drawing huge crowds for the foreseeable future. But Warner Bros. and Baz Luhrmann can take comfort from a glance at the film's page on the review analysis site Rotten Tomatoes: while there aren't enough reviews yet for an official score (three of the four they've collected so far are negative), among users, 98% of those who have posted so far say they're eager to see the movie. Are Luhrmann and DiCaprio critic-proof? We should know for sure by May 12.

See the trailer for 'The Great Gatsby':