0471 | The Great Gatsby

I don’t necessarily want to dismiss out of hand the work of several thousand people – some of whom presumably toiled on The Great Gatsby for years – but my reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s films is extreme enough to make me wonder whether the director is daring his audience to do just that. This adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is the latest frivolous, over-the-top piece by the Australian director. You could also describe it as dazzling, or eye-popping, and as such it was released in 3D as well as 2D. Twenty-five years into his career its obvious – even to the most casual of observers – that Luhrmann has developed his own unique style, a hyperactive amalgam of bright colours, flashy effects, outlandish performances and, of course, those wild and camp dance routines set to modern pop music. Unfortunately as far as I’m concerned I quickly tire of it, usually after 30 or 40 minutes, and I find that getting through the remainder becomes a slog. That probably accounts for my dislike of this film, much as it accounted for my dislike of Moulin Rouge! (For all its faults, Romeo + Juliet is at least culturally significant: as perfect a summation of fifteen years of MTV as you could possibly hope for.)

You can see why Luhrmann thought that Fitzgerald’s novel, with its wham-bam opening introducing the mysterious Jay Gatsby as he presides over one of his lavish parties, would be an ideal fit for his hyperactive style. Indeed it allows him to incorporate one of those grand, fast-cut musical numbers he delights in, and it’s certainly fun to see all those costumed extras dancing in a grand setting, with fireworks popping and Leonardo DiCaprio revealed as if he’s some kind of treasured gift to us all (as a bona fide movie star he can carry this kind of thing off without looking like a total schmuck). It’s a fine example of moviemaking as spectacle, for sure, and you can say the same for the way in which Luhrmann brings to life the story’s secondary locations: the other houses and mansions of West Egg and East Egg, the North Shore more generally, the Roaring Twenties speakeasies of Manhattan, Wall Street and the no-man’s land of the gravelly, oily, industrial valley that lies between the city and the homes of the characters. The camera zips around these colourful places, lurching off rooftops and plunging to the floor below (3D + Lurhmann = good grief), whizzing above trains and speeding cars, zooming in rapidly on windows and entering into lavishly-decorated and ultra-bright rooms. To a point it’s enjoyable, but eventually fatigue sets in, and you eventually begin to look for for the heart and soul of the movie. There is some, but you’ve got to look hard for it, and the director’s always trying to divert your attention away from the search.


Mulligan and DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

At least there are actors here who slot in to Luhrmann’s over-the-top setting and deliver performances that fit with the tone he has established: DiCaprio must work against it all to a certain extent as he tries to sell us the relatively serious issue of Gatsby’s pain and heartbreak, and he slowly adapts his portrait of the titular character as writer Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), our narrator, begins to learn more about him. Joel Edgerton’s blusteringly ignorant Tom Buchanan also seems like a good fit, and the same can be said for the characters played by Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher. Next to them Carey Mulligan’s Daisy seems a little flat and Tobey Maguire’s Nick – the most important character to get right, after Gatsby himself – blandly melts into the background; there’s an argument that Maguire should be the star of this movie but he ends up being less interesting than Luhrmann’s wallpaper. Of course that’s partly the point: Carroway is our way into this world; his disbelief as he stands around the edges and observes is supposed to reflect the viewer’s surprise at the Bohemianism on display, and as such the other characters often don’t notice him or forget that he’s present. Portaying Nick in this way perhaps signals some restraint on the part of the actor, and the director, but the simple fact is Maguire’s quite dull to watch in a film that clearly sets out to banish any potentially-dull moments from the off. (The early scenes in which Nick watches Gatsby, and vice versa, are filled with homoerotic longing, and this could have been interesting, but it’s forgotten about after the twenty minute mark.)


Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Debicki in The Great Gatsby

There’s no doubt that there’s a certain pleasure to be had from watching Luhrmann’s films when the dial goes up to eleven, but I can only take it in doses, and have to simply accept that his style isn’t for me. In his defence I think certain criticisms levelled at him when The Great Gatsby was released a couple of years ago are wide of the mark. It was repeatedly suggested that when you strip away all the singing, dancing, wild camerawork and frenetic editing (ugh, that opening ten minutes) he failed to get to grips with the key themes of Fitzgerald’s text. In actual fact Luhrmann fully embraces these: there’s the idea that a person is more interesting when you know nothing about them, for example, and anyone who watches this adaptation before reading the book will pick up on the way that Gatsby represents the American Dream, as well as the way in which he is a figurehead for the excesses of the rich and the follies typically associated with youth. The question, really, is whether you need to half-bury it using thousands of extras or incongruous pop music that instantly lifts you out the of the depicted era. I guess the point is that this is a text warning against frivolous excess on a grand scale, and yet Luhrmann’s films are precisely that; the budget for this extravaganza was $105m. Ultimately it’s all very superficial: Luhrmann’s films seem to be popular with people but even when I’m in the mood I struggle to take two hours of it.

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann.
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce. Based on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher.
Cinematography: Simon Duggan.
Editing: Jason Ballatine, Matt Villa, Jonathan Redmond.
Music: Craig Armstrong, Various.
Running Time:
142 minutes.

Comments 19

  1. Cindy Bruchman February 16, 2016

    You sound apologetic. Like you want to like it but just can’t. Your instincts and assessment are legit, Stu. I don’t mind Luhrmann’s crazy antics, for the most part, it’s like a wild dream you are stuck in that’s half pleasurable and half tortuous. Outstanding review.

    • Stu February 16, 2016

      Thanks very much Cindy, and you’ve got it – I do want to like it but I find Luhrmann’s exuberant style starts to get on my nerves after a short time! I quite liked Romeo + Juliet but everything else I’ve seen seems to lack depth.

  2. ckckred February 16, 2016

    Nice review Stu. I absolutely despised The Great Gatsby. It was so overly superficial and pompously stupid, ignoring the morality and substance of the book. I hated Luhrmann’s other work, but this may be his most offensive piece for its dismissal adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel.

    • Stu February 16, 2016

      Thanks Charles. You’re not sitting on the fence here! I agree, though I didn’t dislike it as much as you by the looks of things. It’s like watching a 3D rollercoaster movie made for a theme park or something at times, and I think Luhrmann places too much emphasis into camera trickery, soundtrack, costume and so on. Which – as you say – means we get less of the substance.

  3. Rebecca February 16, 2016

    I have to admit I thought the lavishness of the film went with the book – in a piece of written text that describes Daisy’s hair colour as both blonde and brown (in so many words, and that’s just one small example) I would expect a visual representation of this book to be fantastical almost otherworldly. It’s faaaaar from perfect but in terms of the over-the-top-ness I feel like that’s the whole point.

    • Stu February 16, 2016

      I think it would have been possible to have a more accurate, toned down representation of the 1920s without sacrificing the idea that these people are living lives full of excess (and to an extent that’s what you see in earlier adaptations). When I read it I felt the story was grounded in reality, but I have to admit it’s a while ago now!

      • Rebecca February 17, 2016

        Ahhh and I got a completely different feeling from the book, I feel like it would have been a misjustice if the film was grounded in reality, but that’s always the way with film adaptation of books, people have their expectations.

        • Stu February 17, 2016

          True, it’s hard to satisfy everyone, particularly when a novel is so well-known and widely-admired!

  4. Keith February 16, 2016

    In a weird, hypnotic way I liked this one but not with a full embrace. There is something about it that did push me away yet I was pretty smitten with other parts. I’m not a big Luhrmann fan (couldn’t stand Moulin Rouge!) but this one scored some points with me.

    • Stu February 16, 2016

      I hated Moulin Rouge! I had fun to a point with this – the build up to the first big party, and then the party itself, that was all fine even though some of the editing is terrible. But after that Fitzgerald’s story begins to develop and Luhrmann kind of made a rod for his own back by that point, so had to keep up all the CGI, lavish production values and soundtrack choices when all of that no longer suited the material.

    • Stu February 16, 2016

      Thanks Dan, and I agree with you about it being hollow, although I think a couple of the performances (particularly DiCaprio) helped to give it some heart and soul in the end.

  5. Mark Walker February 17, 2016

    Excuse my absence of late, bro. Been having a little blogging hiatus. That said, this caught my eye. I’ve been meaning to get around to this one but can’t seem to muster up the moment that I’m in the mood for it. I did enjoy Romeo + Juliet. In fact, I thought it was excellent but I can’t honestly say that Baz has really ever had me eager to check his shit out. I don’t dislike his style but the material has to warrant it. I thought this might do it but my reservations still stand after your excellent review. As always mate, a great read. 🙂

    • Stu February 19, 2016

      No worries mate, the breaks are good to take! And thanks for the kind words. I like Romeo + Juliet too but everything else I’ve seen of Luhrmann’s (including this one now) is just more of the same, with bells on. Some people seem to like it, but I find it a bit too much.

  6. Tom February 19, 2016

    I’m with you buddy. I can only take so much Luhrmann in one sitting. The Great Gatsby was actually a pretty perfect property for him. He’s flashy, flamboyant, and most of the time shamelessly so. Wasn’t that so the ’20s, though? 😉

    However, the soul of the book was lost in this dizzying physical translation of text to screen. He had a heck of a task ahead of him, though. Slotting the audience in somewhere between the outside observations of Nick Carroway and the experience of Jay Gatsby himself. We are supposed to be watching this through Carroway’s eyes but it’s so damn hard to do so when we hear 21st century rap songs break out in the middle. A headache of a movie for me.

    • Stu February 19, 2016

      That’s a good point. I agree with everything you say there – I couldn’t quite roll along with Maguire’s Carroway and felt more of a draw towards Gatsby (obvious, I guess, as the character is more interesting and any viewer will gravitate toward DiCaprio like a moth toward a very bright flame). I hated the soundtrack…can’t stand it when it’s a period piece and recognisably modern music is used.

    • Stu February 23, 2016

      Yeah, the editing during that section is horrendous! It was hurting my eyes, although at least it settled down. I think DiCaprio and Edgerton saved this film from being a complete disaster.

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