With some directors, it’s difficult to do a review without devoting paragraphs to how their style contributed to the quality of the film. They are often well-known or well-regarded directors, such as Tim Burton or Quentin Tarantino, whose films you can look at and immediately know it’s one of theirs. Baz Luhrmann is one of those directors. His fetish for gaudy spectacle has turned him into one of the most prominent directors working. From the polarizing modernized version of Romeo + Juliet to the lavish fantasia of Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann’s has gained a reputation in Hollywood for his emphasis on style over substance. When it was announced that he would be directing the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant ’20s era novel The Great Gatsby, there were mixed reactions. Some thought it was an inspired choice to pick a director so well-known for his visual flare to match the larger-than-life parties and characters depicted in the novel. Others groaned at the idea of Luhrmann ruining yet another literary classic with his trademark MTV-style editing and alarming lack of subtlety. I’ve never been a fan of his so I fell into the latter category, worried that it would take one of my favorite novels of all time and turn it into a slightly-less-musical Moulin Rouge!. Though the film isn’t nearly as bombastic as that musical disaster, the film ultimately gave me exactly what I was expecting.
Set in the heart of the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby tells the tale of Nick Carraway as he moves into the city of West Egg and subsequently experiences the lavish parties and the beautifully doomed lives of the filthy rich. Played by the bizarrely-cast Tobey Maguire, Nick is the audience surrogate, giving us a window into this world through his wide-eyed wonder. Maguire has a doe-eyed quality that works for his character, but he has such an astonishing lack of screen presence that it’s easy to lose interest whenever the film focuses on Nick or reverts back to his listless narration. When we finally meet the eponymous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the film gains the magnetic energy it needs. DiCaprio has been an A-list leading man for over a decade now but this appears to be the role he was born to play. His eternally youthful face compliments his character so much that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. The actor plays Gatsby with a complicated mix of youthful idealism and jaded resentment, and despite verging on unlikable in parts, he still remains compelling to watch. Nick learns that his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), is Gatsby’s love-from-afar, despite her being married to another man. He learns of their turbulent past together and of how she eventually became The One That Got Away. It’s a simple, elegant story and the performances, especially DiCaprio and Mulligan, reflect the earnest romance of Fitzgerald’s prose. Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher (Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker, George and Myrtle Wilson, respectively) give the type of working class/brassy performances found so often in films from the ’30s and ’40s. It is evident that most of the cast worked very hard to inhabit their characters. Since this is such a classic story, it’s easy to see why they would want to mold Fitzgerald’s iconic characters into a fitting film adaptation.
Unfortunately, this is Baz Luhrmann’s film. And Baz Luhrmann will be damned if he doesn’t make you understand that this is Baz Luhrmann’s film. For the first 40 minutes of the film, the soundtrack blasts modern-day hip-hop tracks and pulsing dance hits, neither of which have any association with the ’20s. I can understand Luhrmann’s intention: modern-day audiences wouldn’t feel the frantic energy of the era through Big Band numbers or brass-heavy jazz. He wants us to understand that the experience you would feel in a nightclub is what these characters felt at one of Gatsby’s parties. I understand the concept in theory. In execution, however, the film completely misses the mark. Hip-hop and dance pulsate throughout the party scenes, creating an obnoxious cognitive dissonance between the audio and the visual. The songs on their own are great, including a Beyonce/Andre 3000 cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”, an ironically titled Fergie club track called “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” and a bouncing ditty called “Bang Bang” by will.i.am. In the context of the film, however, they simply don’t work. I know Luhrmann thinks he’s being innovative by doing this, and I can’t fault him for trying, but elements like this are enough to take an audience out of the film before they even get into the meat of the story. There is something to be said for suspension of disbelief, but it’s hard to immerse yourself in the film without being distracted by its clever little devices. At one point, Nick leaves the main dance area and the thumping club music actually dips, as if he just entered the bathroom of a modern-day discotheque. Through the first 40 incoherent minutes, I was so overwhelmed with noise and color that I couldn’t help but look away from the pure gaudiness of it all. Luhrmann doesn’t allow the camera to settle on a shot for longer than 5 seconds, probably producing more shots in 40 minutes than most feature-length films. It’s headache-inducing, but at least it produces the right effect for the film’s thesis about excess. It’s annoying, but it’s consistent.
It’s in the aftermath of this extended beginning that The Great Gatsby becomes a completely different film altogether. The hip-hop is gone, the frenetic editing is gone, and any force of life the film once had is gone. I know Fitzgerald presented the story in this fashion, but it’s at this point in the film that it feels like Luhrmann suddenly remembered he was telling the story of The Great Gatsby and crammed in all the surface-level plot elements of the novel. What’s left is a paint-by-the-numbers, Sparknotes version of the story that fails to reflect any of the social commentary or subtle nuance that made the novel such a classic. Luhrmann is in such a rush to tell the story that he fails to make us fall in love with the doomed relationship between Gatsby and Daisy or the wide-eyed spirit of Nick, though we do get glimpses of humanity here and there. The scene in the middle portion of the film where Gatsby, Daisy and Nick are lounging in Gatsby’s mansion is perhaps the best in the entire film. It is because the characters are allowed to breathe and interact organically, free from affectation or artifice, that the novel’s infectious love story comes to life at last. Of note here is the best musical motif of the film, Lana Del Rey’s haunting “Young & Beautiful”, a song that repeats in instrumental form throughout Gatsby’s and Daisy’s scenes. DiCaprio and Mulligan are strong enough actors to carry scenes just through their expressive eyes, and it is in these dialogue-less scenes, with Del Rey’s gorgeous melody playing in the foreground that the film really shines.
Soon, however, the film tries to beat the audience over the head with the symbolism of the novel to such an extent that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes after each of their 10-20 appearances. The famous blue eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg looking over the city lose all ambiguity and mystery as Tobey Maguire flatly explains how the audience is supposed to feel. The searing green light on the horizon, representing Gatsby’s so-close-and-yet-so-far romance with Daisy is shown so often that it gradually begins to lose all meaning. It is clear that Luhrmann would not have chosen these to represent the film if he was telling an original story. They simply do not belong in his limited vision of this story. What we are left with, and what I expected going into a Luhrmann film is a glorified music video that goes on way too long, followed by a group of actors trying their best to create full-fledged characters in between unnecessary sweeping shots and Luhrmann’s schizophrenic idea of what the film is. The film is all over the place, and a case could be made that this is exactly how the film should be, but if Luhrmann really wanted to translate the feeling of the novel to a modern audience, he should’ve taken more care to tell a cohesive story rather than to feed his own ego.
MVP: Leonardo DiCaprio
Lead Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio