The cover story of this month’s Vanity Fair paints a disturbing picture of a major Hollywood movie going off the rails. Over-budget and with its release date delayed, the film is further troubled by a lack of creative vision and no clear sense of how to deliver a concluding third act. These are production problems that you might assume would beset a mainstream blockbuster – the film in the Vanity Fair story is Brad Pitt’s zombie epic World War Z, by the way. But you wouldn’t expect them to occur with an adaptation of a finely tuned period novel about loneliness, obsession, disillusionment and lost love.
But Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby arrives five months behind its original planned release date, beyond its $130 million budget, over-produced and with a third act that drizzles to a standstill, as if the director has lost interest once the parties stopped. Indeed, the greater focus is on the extravagant set-pieces, the gleaming, sumptuous parties, than the things that arguably really matter in Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s novel. The focus should be the doomed romance between the elusive Gatsby and the object of his obsession, Daisy Buchanan, and the sad collapse of Gatsby’s “grand vision for his life and Daisy’s part in it”. Yet this is toploaded with Jazz Age parties, where everything is thrown at the screen in dizzying 3D crane shots, zoom cuts and vertiginous tracking shots, all cut to a bludgeoning hip hop soundtrack. It’s a film of colossal artifice and superficiality, in love with surface dazzle – but as it turns out, none of the spectacle is remotely thrilling. This is meant to be a time of obscene indulgence and self-destructive decadence, both thrilling and diabolical – yet in Luhrmann’s hands the experience feels broadly equivalent to witnessing a major American city reduced to rubble by giant robots in a Michael Bay film. It’s loud, frenetic and quite boring.
Which is strange, because Luhrmann and his co-screenwriter Craig Pearce make a virtue of the story’s literary origins. Creating a framing sequence, they introduce us to the narrator Nick Carraway recovering from alcohol addiction in a clinic who, as part of his therapy, writes down his memories of summer, 1922 spent in Long Island Sound and New York City – this, then, becomes Carraway’s book, ‘The Great Gatsby’. It’s an intriguing idea, and riffs loosely on both Fitzgerald’s own breakdown in the 1930s and more broadly the ruin of America during the 1929 crash and the Great Depression. But for Luhrmann and Pearce, it simply becomes an opportunity to superimpose the novel’s text on screen – another gimmick, something else to throw at the audience. I wonder whether much of the hyperactivity on display here comes from a rather patronizing belief that an audience can’t be trusted to sit through the film without some kind of distraction being flung at them every five minutes. As it is, the whole thing feels like he’s repeating the tropes and tricks of Moulin Rouge, with little attempt to move forward creatively.
Reinforcing his bang-for-the-buck strategy, Luhrmann goes a bundle on sweeping digitalized New York vistas and Disney-like castles that appear out from firework smoke and clouds, all so patently unreal you might as well be watching Avatar. It becomes difficult to successfully engage with the characters in such a hyper-stylized environment: they’re overshadowed by the bombast. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby eventually makes his entrance it’s to a mangled piece of Gershwin and a colossal firework explosion, some distance away from his artfully low-key introduction in the novel. Incidentally, DiCaprio is the best thing in the film – he has what Fitzgerald describes as “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it… It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” He also catches something of the sad unraveling of Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy – but I don’t think he’s given the chance to explore Gatsby’s darker impulses. As Nick says, people don’t just “drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound”: Gatsby’s reasons for his self-actualization isn’t, as Luhrmann and his soundtrack cohort Jay-Z seem to think “aspirational”, but in truth a particularly bleak assessment of the American Dream.
Carey Mulligan’s Daisy has none of the brittle translucence I rather liked about Mia Farrow’s performance in the 1974 film version; or much of her natural style. Emma Watson, perhaps, would have brought a keener intelligence to the part, as it is Mulligan plays Daisy as simply as possible, as shallow and vain, which gives you no real sense of why she evokes such monumental obsession in Gatsby. As Daisy’s brutish husband Tom, Joel Edgerton has the right physical presence, but I wonder whether an actor like Guy Pearce would perhaps have conveyed more clearly the contradictions of Tom’s character. Tobey Maguire’s Nick is dorky and bewildered. One pivotal sequence, where Gatsby confronts Tom over Daisy in a Manhattan hotel on a sweltering day, is well played – and, mercifully, unaccompanied by crashing beats – but it feels too little, too late.
The key to Gatsby, I think, is the book’s final chapter – the quiet disentanglement of Gatsby’s myth, the arrival of his father, revelations regarding the true extent of Daisy and Tom’s moral decrepitude. Luhrmann evidently has no patience for such reflective business and jettisons it. We end, still, with the “boats against the current” line, appearing on screen in typewriter script to flag up its importance, though I don’t think Luhrmann really nails what it means or what it’s about. It’s a problem which persists throughout this movie.
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