Director Baz Luhrmann is one of the more polemic filmmakers working today. While many praise his modern take on the Bard with his Romeo Juliet (1996) and his radical musical Moulin Rouge (2001), others are equally adamant that he’s a stylistic hack who lets his elaborate visuals and seizure-inducing editing-style suffocate his innovative narratives. I was filled with a sense of dread when he announced in 2011 that his next film would be an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby … in 3D. The seminal American novel of the 20th century in the hands of an Australian filmmaker who favors excessive style over substance was a recipe for disaster in my mind.
And while the film does suffer from Luhrmann’s overwrought aesthetic at times, it must be said that this version of Gatsby works more often than not. The director wisely adheres closely to the original text while his unique brand of visual pomp is a perfect match for the outsized fantasy world the main character builds around himself. To be sure, the film is flawed. There are times when the filmmaker is unable to contain himself and his grandiose style suffocates the subtle tones of Fitzgerald’s story but there’s no denying this is a distinctive, energetic take on the novel.
A brief recap of the story is in order. The setting is Long Island during the Roaring ’20s. Reluctant bond trader and would-be author Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved into a small cottage that’s dwarfed by the ornate mansion built by elusive millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Though few have actually laid eyes on this mysterious figure, there’s no shortage of rumors pertaining to his past, some of them noble in nature, others slanderous. However, Carraway meets Gatsby, becomes his friend and discovers a connection exists between the reclusive millionaire and his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (a vibrant Carey Mulligan) who lives across the sound from Gatsby’s mansion with her brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).
The film gets off to a shaky start. Luhrmann is unable to let a normal conversation ensue without cutting it together in staccato fashion. While this technique heightens the frenzy of the bacchanals that exemplify the film’s decadent age, it still proves to be a distraction as does the modern soundtrack that clashes like plaid with polka dots. However, this subsides over time and the story plays out with an admiral adherence to the text.
Surprisingly, Luhrmann’s opulent aesthetic proves to be a good fit for the fantasy world that Gatsby conjures around himself. The director pulls out all the stops in rendering a larger than life environment the character basks and ultimately wilts in. Particularly vivid is our first look at him, in which he’s seen against a clear, star-studded night sky, replete with fireworks exploding behind DiCaprio who at that moment is the epitome of charm and style. This is one of the defining moments of the film.
Without question, Luhrmann and Craig Pearce who co-wrote the screenplay have a great respect for the novel. Little tinkering is done with it and what is added plays to the story’s advantage. It’s all told in flashback by Carraway who has been institutionalized for alcoholism and depression and as a therapeutic exercise he begins to write out Gatsby’s story. While purists may scoff at this, it allows more of Fitzgerald’s writing to be used in the film, serving as an anchor amidst that flash and flurry.
In the end, what sells the film is Luhrmnn’s enthusiasm and that of his cast. DiCaprio effectively taps into Gatsby’s delusional and tragic nature, Mulligan brings vibrancy to Daisy that makes her desirable, Edgerton’s edge gives Tom a much-needed sense of violence, while Maguire proves to be the major surprise, finding some interesting shadings in Carraway who heretofore has been a cipher. Surely, this Gatsby is far from great and will not be to everyone’s taste. However, it is a distinctive vision that deserves to be seen for all of its glorious faults and grand ambition.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.