The Great Gatsby
I have to admit, I didn’t expect much from this. Not out of some allegiance to F Scott Fitzgerald’s literary heritage (I haven’t read the damn thing) or out of a preference for the Redford incarnation (I’ve not seen it since I was at school – perhaps it was shown in acknowledgement of the novel’s absence from English school syllabuses – but it left little impression). Rather, because the hand at the tiller was the dread pirate Luhrmann. One man and his diarrheic directorial style. So I was surprised at how immersive (in 2D, I hasten to add) and involving I found his adaptation. With caveats, of course.
I can’t say I’ve really liked a Baz Luhrmann film since his debut, Strictly Ballroom. Romeo + Juliet was fine and all, but it felt like a version designed to make studying the play at school bearable (and West Side Story had the same basic conceit, but did it much better). I persevered with Moulin Rouge. I suffered through it at least twice but, more than the barely controlled chaos and frenzied musical interludes (I do like the soundtrack, I should add), the lack of chemistry between the leads killed any lingering openness to persuasion. As for Orstralia, it might have been a ridiculous, idiotic treat if only Baz had the balls to be consistently dumb rather than only when the moment took him. As it is, it’s a catastrophe.
And it’s not as if Baz has reined in any of his more uncontrolled (I’m not sure any are controlled, to be honest) impulses with Gatsby. His camera is all over the place, he has in no way curbed his inadvisable predilection for frantically sped up zooms across (CGI) cityscapes, any moment he can emphasise with an on-the-nose musical reference he’ll take (Love is Blindness stands out as particularly egregious), there’s an ADD quality that insists he fills the screen with as much activity as possible – irrespective of whether it adds anything (Nick’s written words appear as he speaks them) or is any way appropriate to the tone of the scene.
But somehow, a lot of Gatsby actually works. Perhaps it’s because, for the first time since he dabbled in the Bard, Baz has a strong story to tell. It’s one that can stand his utterly at-odds detours into slapstick, and his desire to punctuate any recollection or flashback with a miasma of montages. The gaudy excess that was celebrated in Moulin Rouge isn’t particularly filtered here; Baz is no more prone to allowing the aching emptiness play out through visual lulls but, during the second half of the film, the hyperactive frenzy of party-central, the rap-tastic ’20s dancing and the enthusiastic decadence do coalesce into something approximating a purpose. Gatsby’s elaborate manifestation of decadence is utterly empty. It is wrongheadedly motivated, and so leads to his inevitable in securing and possessing the love of his life. Who only has so much feeling for him, and no more.
It’s probably more of an equation that this film is a partial success; Baz hits more marks in total than he misses, but he’s certainly indulging a fair bit of the latter. Those constant cuts back to a billboard advertising the all-seeing oculist, or his CGI-fuelled imagining of dust-bowl poverty, dirt and hardship (it’s Baz’s 99 percent commentary, you see). There’s a sheen here that ensures certain points just can’t hit home. Because the poise behind it is resoundingly glib. There’s no more depth than the seemingly Speed Racer inspired car chase between Gatsby and Tom. If you’d asked me at the halfway mark, I’d have said that, as engrossing as the story is, there’s zero room for nuance or understatement. But I don’t think that’s quite fair. It’s more the case that Baz allows, or is unable to prevent, his cast from instilling pathos into the proceedings. Which is not to say he delivers a picture as devoid of story beats as Michael Bay, another ADD director who unable to distinguish a big scene from a small moment. Baz is aware of the course of his story (just listen to those music cues; he’s blasting it out), but it’s his performers who ultimately guide the film to something approaching an affecting denouement.
If you take a look at IMDB, much of the conversation that isn’t hating on the soundtrack seems to revolve around the cast or perceived miscasting. Which is understandable if you’ve been force-fed a “great American novel” as an impressionable youngster. You’re bound to have preconceptions. I thought DiCaprio was pretty great as Gatsby, transitioning from sureness and an unruffled veneer of confidence to wretchedness and the desperate delusion that his love will come to him if only he wishes hard enough. Perhaps because I don’t know the novel, I was repeatedly reminded of another legendary exemplar of the American Dream: Charles Foster Kane. In both cases, there is a mystery to be uncovered as to what makes them tick, and riches hide emotional poverty or at least yearning. All the money in the world can’t enable Gatsby to turn back the clock. There’s also the slightly jowly resemblance DiCaprio bears to the young Orson Welles (though Welles, the light that shined twice as brightly, was more than ten years Gatsby Leo’s junior when he played Kane).
Joel Edgerton also stands out as Tom Buchanan, rich through class and breeding, whose contemptible views can’t hide a piercing insight into the flaws of his peer group. Edgerton is every bit DiCaprio’s equal for screen presence, but it does mean that other characters get slightly lost. Is Carey Mulligan’s Daisy supposed to be something of a cypher, merely a reflection of the desires of Gatsby and rejection by Tom? If so, then the role is a success. She certainly elicits no empathy, even less so as the tale descends to its tragic adieu. Elsewhere, Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke do well with broad, trashy caricatures. Elizabeth Debicki is fabulous as Daisy’s friend Jordan; for which she has received nigh-on universal plaudits, no matter what critics have thought of the movie as a whole. And the best compliment one can pay her is there isn’t nearly enough of her character.
The kind-of weak link is Tobey Maguire’s writer/narrator/watcher/voyeur Nick. I can’t make a call on the literary Nick but the main problem here is that Maguire is playing Maguire. Wide-eyed and innocent, it’s not difficult to believe he and (real life pal) DiCaprio are close to a decade younger than their actual ages because neither has the weight of experience in their faces. In Maguire’s case, it isn’t that he can’t hold a scene, or that he’s unable to portray the constantly reflective Nick (and Maguire is a winning actor); it’s that he seems exactly the way he does in every movie he makes (that’s a little unfair; he’s quite distinctive in Brothers, but perhaps that the exception that proves the rule).
So there you go. I was fully prepared to bet I could never possibly like a Baz Luhrmann film ever again. Orstralia seemed like his apotheosis, or nadir, if you will. But the colour, and excess, the anachronism and opulence; they work in The Great Gatsby’s favour. It’s quite clear Baz can’t make a (period) movie without marbling it with his own particular vision of contemporaneity, but in this case the abandon succeeds in relaying the sadness and lack underneath. That, and a fine performance from Leo.