This is a phantasmagorical telling of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story, highlighted by fine acting and incredible sets and brilliant colors. The sets are so spectacular and the parties so garish and unrealistic that one wonders if director Baz Luhrmann (who also co-wrote the script with Craig Pearce) has copied the idea of last year’s Life of Pi and the story is just the imagination of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who is writing and narrating the story as we see it unfold on the screen. In fact, Fitzgerald tacitly admitted that Carraway was really him and much of what he wrote was autobiographical.
The sets and costumes are mesmerizing. The colors are so vivid and bright that they resemble the three strip Technicolor from the late ‘30s through the mid-‘50s. The recreations of 1920s-era cars are gorgeous. However, in real life not every car looks as pristine and beautiful all the time as every car in this movie does. Apparently, if this movie is to be believed, everybody washed and polished their cars every day. There’s not one in the movie that doesn’t look brand new. But this is reel life, so it’s OK, because the beautiful classic cars add a lot to the ambience.
The sets were constructed in Sydney, Australia, even though Luhrmann started out planning to shoot on location in New York. The high cost of shooting there drove him Down Under. The most impressive sets are the creations of the two main houses, one belonging to Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the other to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), the husband of the love of Gatsby’s heart, Daisy (Carey Mulligan). According to Maguire the sets were so mind-boggling, that “if you look behind the camera you’d see 20 or 30 crew members with their camera phones out. That never happens on film sets, but this was such a spectacle, something to behold.”
The main criticisms I have were the CGI-created aerial shots of 1922 New York, and shots of the Valley of the Ashes (not CGI, but shot on an abandoned railroad yard) where George Wilson (Jason Clarke) has his gas station and lives with his wife, Myrtle (Isla Fisher), who is Tom Buchanan’s mistress, unbeknownst to George. Those shots teeter on looking phony and out of place, and are not up to the high quality of the rest of the movie.
But those shots are minor annoyances. If this movie does not win the Oscar® for production design (Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife), something’s wrong. In fact, Martin could also be up for costume design because the clothes by Prada and Miu Miu are dazzling. Adding to the fun is the 3-D which is among the best I’ve seen so far.
This shows life as it never was and never could be, but it is captivating. All four of the main actors, DiCaprio, Mulligan, Maguire, and Edgerton give convincing, high-quality performances, as do Clarke and Fisher. For a movie well over two hours in length Luhrmann keeps the pace moving so that it passed the watch test with flying colors. This is movie-making at its best.
The most interesting thing about this film is that it stars Soko, a singer who has branched into acting. She does a commendable job, as does her co-star, Vincent Lindon, who plays Dr. Jean Martin Charcot, a French neurologist, with whom Sigmund Freud studied in Paris. In fact, Freud wrote, “No other man ever had such an influence on me.”
Loosely based on a true story Soko plays Augustine, a 19-year-old maid who suffers seizures resulting in paralysis, and is diagnosed by Charcot with hysteria. Charcot uses Augustine to enhance his reputation by displaying her throwing her fits to the public. Apparently this drew large crowds because word of Augustine’s fits and profane language that she uttered while in them, spread rapidly.
The diagnosis of hysteria was the subject of a 2011 film entitled, appropriately enough, Hysteria. Unlike this, however, that was an attempt at a romantic comedy. This is dark and serious throughout. In fact, there are so many shots of Charcot and Augustine thinking that I thought I had somehow unknowingly slipped into a Terrence Malick movie. Fortunately not, but this movie is directed by first timer Alice Winocour, a 35-year-old graduate of the Fémis film school which carries some cachet in France. Winocour didn’t trust the facts enough, so she inserted a dubious B story of a sexual or romantic relationship between Augustine and Charcot.
Neither the cachet nor the bungled B story are going to help her with this one, because it is terribly slow and lowlighted by dark cinematography. This failed the watch test dismally and that’s unfortunate because it’s a film that had the makings of being another Snake Pit (1948). In French.