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.
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.)
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.