A great adaptation of what’s considered the Great American Novel has proven as elusive as the symbolic green light the obsessed Gatsby is desperately reaching for.
It’s been almost 40 years since the Robert Redford-starring misfire and now it’s the turn of Australian director Baz Luhrmann to see if he can capture the essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most celebrated work.
Luhrmann certainly has some pedigree bringing iconic literature to the big screen; his unconventional modern-day version of Shakespeare’s most famous romantic tragedy (Romeo + Juliet) was a big hit and introduced the Bard to a whole new audience. His Oscar-nominated 2001 smash Moulin Rouge! also proved he’s no stranger when it comes to visual excess. That his 3-D take on The Great Gatsby is a failure, therefore, is a shame; all be it one with enough to save it from being labelled a disaster.
The source of the problem lies with Luhrmann himself, specifically his inability to both construct a well-paced scene and find the soul of the book. To borrow that great line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Set in New York at the height of the Roaring Twenties, our way into the story is through Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an aspiring writer working in the city selling bonds, who rents a modest property next to the opulent mansion owned by the enigmatic and secretive Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Carraway befriends Gatsby, whose decadent parties are the talk of the town, but can never pin down his true character. All he knows is that Gatsby is obsessed with Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who’s unhappily married to two-timing millionaire Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
Films generally succeed or fail with their audience within the first 20 minutes. Luhrmann’s approach to winning us over in the first two reels is to burn a hole in the retina with a kinetic explosion of colour, razzmatazz, CGI and stomach-churning, epileptic camerawork – all accompanied by Jay-Z’s scattershot soundtrack taking in hip hop, George Gershwin and plenty more besides – that tries to batter you into submission but just ends up coming off as a mess.
While Luhrmann’s at his most comfortable and confident during the myriad party scenes, where his supersonic style of direction suits the frenzied action on screen, when the story demands restraint to allow the narrative to flow and the characters to develop the film badly loses its way. The whole middle section is listless, with scenes that should be gripping (in particular the pivotal hotel room showdown that drives the final act) feeling unengaging and oddly lifeless.
Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce invent scenes of Carraway writing about his experiences with Gatsby while being treated in a sanatorium for “morbid alcoholism” as a way of explaining the narration, but get bogged down by continually returning to the washed-up wannabe writer pouring his tortured soul onto the page, even going so far as to etch choice bits of prose onto the screen.
Maguire’s lost puppy look soon grates and doesn’t work. Carraway may feel “within and without” of the world he stumbles into, but Maguire’s performance suggests he’s far happier observing than getting his hands dirty. Mulligan’s scared and inert southern belle is more believable, however, while Edgerton chews the scenery as the self-entitled Buchanan.
DiCaprio stands head and shoulders above everyone else (with the exception of Elizabeth Debicki’s cynical Jordan, a friend of Daisy), giving a performance far more understated and nuanced than anything else in the movie. His introduction – stood in front of a volley of fireworks, glass raised – is the one moment the film lives up to the title. DiCaprio has matured significantly as an actor in the past few years and delivers an engaging mix of charisma, mystery, sadness and unnerving obsession that saves the film from falling flat on its face.
At one moment Carraway compares what he’s witnessing to an “amusement park”. It’s a fitting description of this beautifully designed but ultimately hollow experience which, much like Gatsby, would rather you didn’t scratch beneath the veneer.
Nice review. I thought it was a shallow adaptation of the book that ditched the story’s message about the corruption of 20s society and just focused on Gatsby and Daisy’s romance. I’ve never been a fan of Luhrmann and he’s the wrong director to adapt this material.
Can’t disagree with you there after watching this. Thanks for the feedback.
He doesn’t do the source material much service certainly. It’s a superficial movie at best.
Wonderful review! I must say though that I did not find this movie to be as bad as it was painted. Sure, it had its flaws, but not the worst movie ever.
Thank you! It’s certainly not the worst movie ever, there are plenty worse. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good film either. I’ll always watch a film adaptation on its own merits, but there were few merits to be found here.
Such a pity, but it seems that this movie is one that is either loved or hated!
Pretty much. That’s Luhrmann for you!
I haven’t read the book but I’m hoping I can still appreciate this. Maybe I’ll appreciate it more? It’s had some very mixed reviews but I still fancy giving it a watch, if I ever get round to it.
You should never need to have read the source material to enjoy an adaptation; a film should always be judged on its own. That being said, it’s simply not a very engaging film more’s the pity.
Nice review. The cast does what they can, but the direction isn’t too concerned with them. It’s all style, all the time.
Cheers! Yep, can’t disagree with you there. It’s all surface and no feeling for me. Zany CGI and 3-D does not a good film make.
I have to agree with your thoughts on this, it was a very disappointing movie….
Cheers. Alas, Luhrmann can seemingly only direct at warp factor 10.
This is a wonderful review of the film. In my opinion, Luhrmann only captures the superficial nature of Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship, rather than the whole essence of 1920’s New York.
Thanks very much; that’s kind of you to say. It’s a very superficial film in my opinion, one that looks great (like all of Luhrmann’s films) but is ultimately hollow.
Too kind! That’s the problem with Luhrmann; he’s a superficial filmmaker who struggles to find any serious substance beneath the veneer. There’s a great version of this book to be made, I hope to see it some day.