Baz Luhrmann: Artistic visionary or artificial hack? Those are the only choices, ‘ol sport.
The Australian director, best known for films such as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, leaves anyone watching his films polarized. He’s a stylish director specializing in lavish sets and costumes (both designed by his wife, Catherine Martin), frenetic editing, eclectic soundtracks, and comical vibes eventually forming into full on drama, all of which either enchant, or disgust his audiences. Everyone was both skeptical and curious when his next project was announced to be The Great Gatsby, a book I’m sure we all
skimmed across in high school. A book as famous and as hard to film as Gatsby
is probably not the best bet for Luhrmann to make, but with the talent that he
got on board for this movie, and the studio’s clever marketing, people
definitely stopped to take notice, the film beckoning their attention like a flashing
In the “Roaring Twenties”, Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a World War I veteran, moves to New York, works among the ranks of Wall Street, and resides in a small house on Long Island. By chance, his next door neighbor happens to be the much discussed Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man shrouded in mystery, and known for throwing bombastic, weekend long parties. Nick becomes fascinated by Gatsby’s wealth, materials, connections, and outlook on life, but eventually learns his motivations. Gatsby is in love, obsessively so, with Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), as the two were romantically linked before being torn apart. In desperation, Gatsby asks Nick to help him win Daisy back from her current husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), an old college friend of Nick’s, hoping to gain her love once more with his wealth, even though such sincere gestures appear hollow.
Like I said, this is a difficult adaptation to pull off. The original story by F. Scott Fitzgerald was an examination of the garish growth in economy, extravagant styles, and crime syndicates ahead of its time. Not many people are sure how to do it, at least not in a way that treats the book’s themes and characters in equal measure. Somehow, despite how misplayed and overcooked Luhrmann’s vision may appear, I think that it surprisingly works.
Anyone who’s seen this movie can’t deny that it looks stunning, with Catherine Martin outdoing all of her past efforts with a pitch perfect representation of the “Roaring” 20’s, while Luhrmann uses his usual stylistic tendencies (whether you like them or not) with tremendous visual and aural energy. For instance, the film does a fantastic job of building up the Gatsby character, as he doesn’t appear until half an hour through the picture. When he does appear, it’s done in slow motion close up, with fireworks in the background, and a majestic fanfare of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s over the top in the best sense of the word. Classic Baz!
As always in Luhrmann’s films, the soundtrack is one of the best elements. Certainly anachronistic, but gorgeous to listen to, featuring a delicate score by Craig Armstrong, and a talented roster of artists smartly assembled by Jay-Z. Of the numerous performers recruited for the soundtrack, two stand out: Florence + The Machine, whose haunting “Over the Love” (the best song on the album) owns its brief appearance in the film, and Lana del Rey, whose “Young & Beautiful” works wonder with Gatsby and Daisy’s romance.
While it may sound similar in style to Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann does restrain himself for more poignant moments. These slower moments allow the cast to truly shine, with DiCaprio’s obsessive and mysterious Gatsby, and Edgerton’s arrogant and suspicious Tom Buchanan, giving the best performances in the whole film. Carey Mulligan is quite the beauty as Daisy, Isla Fisher is fun in a small, charming little role, and excellent newcomer Elizabeth Debicki would have stolen the whole film, if her character, Jordan Baker, hadn’t been too trimmed from the original source material. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, sticks out noticeably. It’s not that he’s bad, and it’s not like the original character gave him much to work with anyway, but against the numerous other performances, he’s considerably pale.
What everyone will be most divided on is how the film depicts the societal issues. For many, the locales of New York and frantic editing, gorgeous though they may be, will get in the way of the novel’s analysis of excess and the value of materialism over honest ethics, while others may see the stylized imagery as a fitting enhancement of those issues. The film eventually takes a deep turn that caught me off guard, and when the film ended, it took me a long time to figure out how I felt. In certain ways, the book practically flies off the screen… no, seriously. The book literally flies off the screen. Portions of Fitzgerald’s original text casually appear throughout the film. Viewers may also take issue with the length of the whole thing. At nearly 2 and a half hours, it can get tiresome, but despite such pacing problems, I never once got bored.
In spite of the fact that the film is all over the place, I still think it makes for a great watch, taking a very difficult book, and infusing it with great energy and top notch filmmaking. Love him or hate him, Baz Luhrmann is a director who has as much love for the magic of cinema as any of us do, and pays homage to the unforgettable classics with suitably sparkling ingenuity. Moulin Rouge! this is not, but if you’re willing to give yourself over to this movie, you may be in store for a pleasant surprise, ol’ sport…
****1/2 / *****