Director: Baz Luhrmann
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie
Despite having four major adaptations to date, The Great Gatsby remains a tough nut to crack film-wise. Despite a glamourous surface sheen, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel (THE great American novel, many would say) is far deeper and more caustic than all the flappers and empty champagne bottles floating about it would suggest. Yet, the era pulls us in; the lavishness is intoxicating. It’s meant to be; the first act luxuries give way to rug-pulls later as millionaire Jay Gatsby succumbs to his own fantasies and fate plays its hand. Alas, when it comes to the screen, screenwriters and directors lean on romance and style. The themes will inevitably get shoehorned in, but resonance is lost in translation.
When it comes to capturing the sheen on the surface, few are better placed than Baz Luhrmann. No matter the scale, from his (relatively) lo-fi debut Strictly Ballroom to the epic excess of Australia, Luhrmann paints with the broadest of strokes. Big sets, brash colours and hearts on sleeves are the order of the day. In his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the brashest of colours is the green light, eternally flickering at the end of Buchanan’s dock on the opposite side of Manhassett Bay from the mansion of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s an important symbol of Gatsby’s hopes in the novel, but Luhrmann shines the light in our faces at every opportunity. Like so many of the symbols brought into Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s screenplay, it goes from suggestive emblem to towering obviousness long before the end.
Our guide into Gatsby’s world is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Carraway is the novel’s narrator and a relative voice of sanity in the world of West Egg, Long Island, home to the nouveau riche of New York’s boom before the bust. However, not content with a ready-made narrator, Luhrmann goes one step further and has Carraway tell the film in flashback from a sanitarium. Having Carraway committed is an unnecessary change from the book, even if it is about the most significant change made to the original plot. Carraway recounts the summer of 1922, and the hedonistic parties thrown at the Gatsby mansion in West Egg. Newly moved into a cottage next door to Gatsby, Carraway visits with his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her polo-playing husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Carraway luxuriates in the wealth of the West and East Egg sets with a grin from ear to ear. Part of the problem with Carraway is that Tobey Maguire is simply too chipper for this everyman. Yes, everything’s shiny and bright, but if this Carraway represented the everyman in the audience, he’d have a headache from the 3D.
Carraway is over the moon when Gatsby personally invites him to his latest party. Bathed in CG moonlight and fireworks, Gatsby’s soirée looks like the world’s classiest themed nightclub. Champagne flows and pool waters glow as Carraway gets close to Daisy’s pal Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Then, at the perfect moment, as the catherine wheels rise to a crescendo, we meet Gatsby. Bathed in the sparks falling from the sky, DiCaprio is perfect casting; yes, he’s dashing and charming, but he’s also a fine actor, and is about the only person who remembers Gatsby is tragic, finding a desperate heart beneath the pressed tuxedo. He connives to get Carraway to bring he and his former lover Daisy together, despite her being married and they not having seen each other in five years. Bearing his previous films in mind, you can see what drew Luhrmann to this story.
Luhrmann’s got the ‘doomed romance’ genre covered; Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! are both hypnotically OTT love affairs. However, when his aerial swooshing around Long Island and Gatsby’s parties recalls the latter film (and fitted it better the first time), it’s clear Luhrmann can’t leave the genre behind. The romance between Gatsby and Daisy get most of the plot’s attention, with Gatsby’s delusions about his future with her getting slotted into the last act. The Great Gatsby is a triumph of style over substance, as 3D skyscrapers and flashy cars dominate the screen. Meanwhile, the green light and the eyes of TJ Eckleburg sashay in frequently as Luhrmann ticks the boxes of items the novel’s devotees would demand to see. Motifs and themes are tickled in an almost off-hand fashion; metaphors become more literal to keep the pace brisk. The lack of subtlety extends to the soundtrack. Why have the period beats of Cole Porter when the likes of Fergie, Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey can serenade us into incoherence?!
DiCaprio does a lot of heavy lifting in his lead role, as his supports are a mixed bunch at best. Debicki brings some effervescence to the underwritten Jordan, whilst the eclectically-cast Amitabh Bachchan sports a mean pinstripe as Gatsby’s business partner Wolfsheim. Maguire is too chirpy for Carraway, whose relationship with Gatsby is at least three furtive glances beyond ‘platonic’. Mulligan looks the part, but she’s too perky to bring out the necessary coolness in Daisy. Had she and Debicki switched roles, this review could have gone up an extra half-star. Edgerton’s a boo-hiss baddy, whilst Isla Fisher is forgettable as Myrtle Wilson, the working-class girl caught up in the covert affairs of the monied gentry (Jason Clarke as her husband George is arguably the most miscast role of the lot).
Occasionally, the text of the novel rolls across the screen as Luhrmann reminds us he’s actually read the book. There is no doubt about that; The Great Gatsby is slavish to the plot to the point of breathlessness. The book has a lot going on (thematically and narratively), perhaps more that a feature film can capture. Like another great novel of disillusioned wealth, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby would probably work better as a mini-series. Like Gatsby reaching for the green light, we’re reaching out for a definitive Great Gatsby. Robert Redford couldn’t do it; DiCaprio has tried, but his cohorts have undermined him. Time for someone else (and perhaps HBO or Netflix) to take up the green-tinged baton.