I’ve often found it a little surprising that Baz Luhrmann managed to find a significant audience at all. His most famous work focuses on a literal fusion of the old and the new, classic and contemporary, in a garish manner that risks alienating most potential audience members. Would Shakespeare fans warm to a candy-coloured, gun-toting, modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet shot and edited like an action thriller? And would the younger generation want to see a new hip 90s romantic film all spoken in Shakespearean dialogue? Yet they did. And Romeo + Juliet is now shown to students leaning about Shakespeare in school. Likewise, Moulin Rouge brought back the big event musical, inspired by classical Hollywood period extravaganzas, but mostly comprised of snippets of banal pop music, laden with special effects, and filmed with a style more akin to Michael Bay than say, Robert Wise or Gene Kelly. But again, it’s proved enduringly popular.
Now, after the mostly forgotten epic Australia, Baz returns with another literary adaptation, this time of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated 1925 novel.
His sensibilities haven’t waned a bit, if anything, they’re cranked up to even higher levels than before. Throughout the opening half hour or so (mostly before we meet Gatsby) we are welcomed to Luhrmann’s vision of 1920’s New York, as seen by Tobey Maguire’s ambitious Nick Carraway, and it can be summed up in a word; excess. It is a world of bright lights, gigantic buildings, confetti explosions, lavish and decadent parties, and seemingly limitless wealth.
The film assaults the senses as Luhrmann again cuts (and cuts) his film in a manner that would appease the crowd who lap up Fast & Furious films. Hell, he even throws in some street racing scenes at ludicrous speeds. He films in 3D, and CGI and showy camera movements are piled on liberally at every possible opportunity. Some effects are impressive but repetitious, such as the sweeping shots taking us from Long Island to Manhattan, others silly, and some totally pointless (words appearing on screen as Maguire says them).
Luhrmann slows down a little in the second half but only really shows some restraint during an impressive, crucial, confrontation scene in a hotel room, arguably the film’s centre-piece. After almost 2 ½ hours, it becomes exhausting.
While Gatsby 2013 retains its 1920s setting, Luhrmann again gives us a soundtrack of anachronistic, modern music, curated by Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, another man hardly associated with restraint. Thankfully rap songs aren’t featured too heavily, but we do get moments of them, and Gatsby’s first party appears to be accompanied by some horrible banging club tune. It also features covers of overplayed songs like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Beyoncé’s execrable Crazy in Love, which really take you out of the period. Only a sappy ballad from Lana Del Rey vaguely works.
Wrapping the story up in such flashy, over-the-top style begs to suggest that there isn’t much substance to The Great Gatsby beneath it all. Surely this cannot be the case. Speaking as someone who has not read the book, this film did not sell it to me. It seems to think that the story is a tale of great romance (other reviews I have read suggest otherwise of the source novel), and we get a good deal of romance montages cementing this idea. The film does not particularly work as a romance though, as we do not get a good sense of most of its characters.
Leonardo DiCaprio has for the most part, continued to seek challenging roles and great filmmakers to work with over the last decade or so, and here he gives a serviceable performance but it’s his least impressive in years, and the first time for a while that he seemed to just be going through the motions (an attractive, charming romantic lead, who occasionally shows some anger). Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is his first time re-teaming with a director from his pre-Scorsese period. Tobey Maguire (an old mate of DiCaprio’s), likewise does his job but basically is just there to observe. It’s Cary Mulligan though, who sadly doesn’t convey anything of a personality to Daisy, the supposed enduring love of Gatsby’s life. All the film really shows us is that she’s pretty.
Any film Baz Lurhmann makes it seems, is going to be very much his film, and really, maybe he’d be better suited to bringing his lavish, ADD infused style to something other than literary adaptations. A Baz Luhrmann sci-fi/action blockbuster maybe? It would surely be a better fit.