An adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's highly acclamed novel set during the Roaring Twenties in 1922. Midwesterner Nick Carraway is lured into the lavish world of his millionaire neighbor, Jay Gatsby, on Long Island. Soon enough, however, Carraway will see through the cracks of Gatsby's nouveau riche existence, where obsession, madness, and tragedy await.
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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
'The Great Gatsby' parties its way onto UHD as part of a two-disc Ultra HD Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital HD combo pack. The UHD BD hosts the film only, but includes a Return To Last Time Played feature. The Blu-ray appears to be the same 2D Blu-ray from the original home entertainment release. And, like all Warner UHD titles, the UltraViolet Digital HD copy can be redeemed at VUDU for a second UHD version of the film graded in Dolby Vision (VUDU has also announced support for HDR10, but I don't know the exact timeline on rollout).
I'm in the middle of reviewing LG's stunning E6 OLED Ultra HD TV, which supports both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision, and produces black levels that embarrass the best plasma displays ever made. More on this soon.
Throw your Blu-ray away. Once you watch The Great Gatsby's marvelous-but-flawed Ultra HD HEVC encode (and framed in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio), you won't be able to watch it any other way.
Here's a perfect example of why I'd much rather describe the visual qualities of something rather than give it a hard numerical score. How so? 'The Great Gatsby' is one of the most beautiful Ultra HD Blu-rays (or Blu-rays for that matter) I've ever seen, and a shining example of how much better this new format can look when compared to HD and SDR...
But there are obvious blemishes we must take into account.
First, there is a mixture of source material, some of which is grainy and low res. Next, some of the visual effects reveal noise in the composites (note a moment at the big party scene where Nick Carraway watches Jordan Baker walk into Gatsby's mansion). I also experienced a little red push in skin tones, some minor black crush, and even a few instances of macroblocking in faster moving objects (look at Myrtle outside the garage as Nick and Gatsby drive to down for lunch), but some of these flaws may be more an issue with my OLED that I'm still dialing in. Finally, there are spikes in noise on a shot-by-shot basis reminiscent of what we experienced with 'The Martian' Ultra HD Blu-ray.
In those terms, 'Gatsby' could be derided for its imperfections. But the overall experience, the sum of all these mismatched parts, is so incredible you won't care about the flaws. There are many, many shots -- both live action and CGI creations -- where the clarity is breathtaking, a night-and-day advantage over the up-scaled Blu-ray, which seems flat by comparison. And then there is the contrast and the colors. WOW. From the costumes to the sets and the cityscapes and the vehicles and the fireworks, the colors are rich and bold and mesmerizing.
I mentioned in my 'Pacific Rim' Ultra HD Blu-ray evaluation that UHD with HDR/WCG can shine too much of a light on certain visual effects. 'Pacific Rim' (and 'Jupiter Ascending' for that matter) suffer no such problems, managing to keep the original intent of their digital creations. 'Gatsby' has an intentional artifice to begin with, but I'd argue the extra sheen here works quite well, adding to Luhrman's heightened visual style. It's an odd feeling; nothing in 'Gatsby' comes off as REAL, but much like 'The Get Down' on Netflix, this mixture of stock footage and overt CGI backgrounds meld together wonderfully and add to the uniqueness.
Also worth noting, in comparing this UHD Blu-ray with HDR10 to the VUDU UHD version with Dolby Vision, physical media's extra bandwidth is obvious, particularly when it comes to fine details, but on the LG E6 OLED, Dolby Vision offers more even skin tones, more shadow details, and zero instances of macroblocking. (I'm fortunate to have a hefty internet connection, but I can't believe how well streaming competes.)
At the end of the day, 'The Great Gatsby' is a marvelous example of a colorful and vibrant production that instantly benefits from high dynamic range and wide color gamut. And, while technically imperfect, the overall experience makes it, along with 'Pacific Rim', one of my favorite UHD titles thus far. If you're searching for a disc that wows, look no further.
While Warners is known for including Dolby Atmos on their Ultra HD releases, and I can't even imagine how fun that track could have been, 'The Great Gatsby' returns to physical media with the same 5.1 DTS-HA Master Audio track from the original Blu-ray releases. That said, it's a very strong 5.1 mix and up-mixes wonderfully into 7.1.4 using DTS:Neural X.
Here's what David had to say in his original review:
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.
Baz Luhrman productions are unique experiences that require audiences to buy into the tonal madness of his worlds. I understand why some don't enjoy his filmography, and why David reviewed 'Gatsby' as he did, but I personally love the mixture of eras and tones, the overlap of broad comedy and melodrama, and manic montages set to musical mashups. Here, Luhrman contextualizes the madness and opulence of the 1920s by threading F. Scott Fitzgerald's American tragedy with modern pop cultural stylings in fascinating ways. It's a visual thrill ride I've been enjoying more and more, particularly in Ultra HD.
As an UHD Blu-ray, I can't recommend 'The Great Gatsby' highly enough. Though technically imperfect, and lacking the star ratings that normally go with Highly Recommended titles, 'Gatsby' boasts some of the most breathtaking usage of HDR and WCG this young format has seen. It's demo material -- warts and all -- from beginning to end. And, to top it all off, with this release, owners will have access to both physical and streaming UHD versions of the movie.