The Great Gatsby Review – Luhrmann’s Limitations

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (screenplay). F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton

Release date: May 10th, 2013

Distributors: Warner Bros. Pictures, Roadshow Entertainment

Countries: Australia, USA

Running time: 142 minutes


Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: Luhrmann’s direction.

Australian director Baz Luhrmann is certainly not one for subtlety. Luhrmann, whose credits include Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Australia, is one of the most polarising directors working today. His handling of well-known material has caused controversy in the past, and his latest effort, The Great Gatsby, continues this trend. This cloying and shallow romantic-drama is yet another one of his films that relies entirely on both a glorious aesthetic and marketing power.

Leonardo DiCaprio.

This Great Gatsby adaptation has many positive elements. However, there are many directors who could’ve done a much better job with source material of this magnitude. The story, from the mind of legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells a story about the 1920s in its heyday. Ambitious and optimistic writer/stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is enjoying his busy life. Situated in a small cottage (hidden away by the giant mansions surrounding it), Nick is curious about those who live in the surrounding estates, and how they achieved their vast riches. He is then invited to the home of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Their pampered existences are then rocked by the mansion across the bay. The mansion’s inhabitants hold elaborate parties that shake the foundations of their upper-class neighbourhood. After being invited to one of these parties, Nick discovers that he has been chosen to help mysterious and handsome aristocrat, and the mansion’s owner, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). However, Nick soon finds out that Gatsby is much more than meets the eye.

Tobey Maguire.

Luhrmann has clearly had a significant amount of exposure to the enviable bourgeoisie lifestyle. The flamboyant director is obsessed with his own eye for both film-making and culture. His style has been the most troubling aspect of all of his big-budget productions. I see him as a cynical film-maker too afraid to trust his audience. Audiences always turn out in droves to embrace the latest Luhrmann production, and I have no idea why. His obvious, excessive, and melodramatic style always overshadows the culturally-important stories he has chosen to tell. His latest film has these same problems, but they aren’t as irritating here as they were in the nigh unwatchable Australia. His interpretation of the ‘Great American Novel’ casts a giant shadow over the original text’s seminal themes and poetic narrative. The story’s most valuable elements are there, but they are either underdeveloped or brought up and cast aside immediately. It is difficult to detect Luhrmann’s intent with his adaptation. The text’s condescending yet intelligent view of the American dream is nowhere near as important to Luhrmann as the material things that he can bring into this story. He is obviously in love with some of Hollywood’s most inspired creations. Here, elements of Sabrina and Sunset Boulevard are alluded to. However, this adaptation only proves that Hollywood doesn’t make movies the way it used to.

Carey Mulligan.

The visuals, though fun, quickly suck this story dry and turn it into a husk of its former self. Luhrmann seeks to give every shot its own personality, and then put them sequentially next to similarly elaborate shots. The first half hour contains a colourful miasma of Luhrmann’s many zany ideas. Shots transition suddenly from beautifully clear to nostalgically grainy, the camera sweeps around characters and through settings, and contrasting colours and elaborate costumes (created primarily by Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin) are bashed together to create many wacky compositions. His in-your-face style is confusing at points. It is difficult to tell whether Luhrmann is using his style to embrace the original novel’s satirical edge, or whether he is simply making everything pretty for no significant reason. Thankfully, his style isn’t as jarring and excessive as it has been in the past (good luck trying to sit through Moulin Rouge!) After Gatsby’s impressive introduction, the pacing and flair is drastically toned down. Despite the film’s refreshing focus on character in the following two thirds, the pacing wavers throughout the film’s exhaustive running time. Luhrmann’s love of anachronisms explains one of the film’s best elements. The Jay-Z-produced soundtrack brings life to this otherwise emotionless movie. The magnificent parties and gentlemen’s club scenes contain a pulse that was desperately needed throughout the rest of the film.

“I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love…” (Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), The Great Gatsby).

Joel Edgerton.

The movie’s female characters metaphorically represent the film itself; pretty to look at, but as shallow as a decorative fountain! The characters come alive in the heated dialogue sequences. Luhrmann loves his actors’ stunning faces. Wacky facial expressions, plastered across the screen at every turn, add to the film’s already exuberant style. I will say there are some inspired choices peppered throughout. It is rare to see verbal sparring sessions as lengthy and tense as the ones in this otherwise dull character study. The exciting performances save this film from being a costly disaster. DiCaprio commands the screen with poise and charisma. His commitment to the awe-inspiring titular role lends depth to an already fascinating character. Gatsby is part smooth-talking hero, part desperate fool, and part dangerous capitalist. Maguire is surprisingly charming as the ‘third wheel’ in this ever-twisting story. We first meet Carraway in a sanitarium, recovering from both alcoholism and the events of this story (a useless narrative device that was not in the original text). Carraway’s words are scrawled across the screen in some scenes, while his narration discusses his damaging experiences in others (yet more excessive stylistic choices). Edgerton is enthralling as the old-money, moustache-twirling aristocrat whom refuses to let Daisy go. Edgerton creates a slimy and vindictive portrayal without ever becoming a caricature. Other Aussie actors, including Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Jack Thompson, and Elizabeth Debicki, are effective in underdeveloped roles.

Luhrmann has a keen eye for pretty things, but still hasn’t learned the basics of convincing storytelling. The eye-popping visuals and pumping soundtrack are able to lift scenes that could easily have been dull. Without the movie’s stellar performances, The Great Gatsby would’ve fallen, and become another one of Luhrmann’s impressive failures, faster than you can say “Old sport”.

Verdict: A visually-stunning yet hollow adaptation of the ‘Great American Novel’.

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