Show me The Great Gatsby without the ‘Directed By’ in the credits and I will tell you Baz Luhrmann directed it. There are a handful of directors whose visual style is so distinctive you can recognize their work a mile away; Wes Anderson is another director on that short list. Luhrmann wants his films to move fast, he displays frenetic intensity by the use of edits and jump cuts. The opening half hour of Moulin Rouge! is unforgettable by how fast it moves, even without the help of hallucinogenic absinthe. A sizeable minority of folks are put off by Luhrmann’s style; they think it too fast and furious. I raise my hand as a fan though.
One of many things the character Jay Gatsby is known for are his outlandish and over-the-top parties. There are fireworks, multiple brass bands, famous actresses, senators, and an unending supply of illegal Prohibition-era booze. Luhrmann is the ideal man to have behind the camera directing a Gatsby party. Glitter and streamers pour down upon tuxedoed gentlemen and their flapper wives and mistresses while more contemporary music pounds in the background with a Jazz Age tweak. Executive Producer Jay-Z gets more than his far share of soundtrack contributions. But can Luhrmann conjure up the more serious aspects of the Gatsby story with as much aplomb?
Retelling and often told tale to an audience familiar with its overarching themes, but does not necessarily all the details, is the challenge Luhrmann walked into with the courage to tell us a story most of us already know. You know how much courage Luhrmann has? He actually made The Great Gatsby in 3-D. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws gargantuan parties at his Long Island estate to lure the one who got away, Daisy Buchannan (Carey Mulligan), back into his open and obscenely rich arms. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is our narrator, Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, and coincidentally, Daisy’s cousin. To complete the love triangle, there is Daisy’s husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), who hails from old money and probably a mother who finds it difficult to love him.
Luhrmann and frequent co-screenwriter Craig Pearce latched on to some of the more notable motifs from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. The rotating green light illuminating Daisy’s mansion across the bay from Gatsby’s mansion mesmerizes him. It taunts him, mocks him, or perhaps represents Daisy as if she is calling out to him to rescue her. But Daisy is just a main cog along with a myriad of other cogs in Gatsby’s fantasies. His past is too fantastical to be true, especially when told with such braggadocio and flair. Besides, Daisy is an emotional child yet can be self-aware at times such as when she wishes her always off-screen child will grow up to be a fool.
There is no more need to discuss plot; most of us dissected the novel in high school. Does Luhrmann bring something new to the table? The most famous predecessors are the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and the 1949 version with Alan Ladd and Betty Field. Luhrmann’s version is certainly louder, gaudier, and has the pacing of a frightened rabbit compared to its more contemplative ancestors. 1922 New York City is also more realized.
Luhrmann is a master of place. Moulin Rouge! (2001) is mostly remembered for its take on Belle Epoque Montmarte, I recall a gritty, urban scape from Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Australia’s outback was its own character in Australia (2008). 1922 New York City and its surroundings are front and center in Gatsby. The powdered-coal and soot stained no-man’s land between Long Island and the city with the oculist advertisement is evocatively created from the novel’s descriptions. The thunderous Dusenberg’s racing over the Queensboro Bridge make you want to get up and actually go visit that time before air conditioning.
Just as the Moulin Rouge parties were the highlight of that film, the Gatsby parties are the pinnacle of this one. Luhrmann’s thudding intensity does not resonate during the rest of the film; however, maybe that is a blessing because it gives the audience a break. Gatsby and Daisy’s meeting requires a certain weight the preview hinted at but the real film did not produce. It is more flippant and lighter than a meeting between these two long-absent lovebirds need. Maguire is an effective Carraway because he knows to keep to the background where his mundane and more levelheaded character belongs. Nick Carraway may tell us the story, but it is not his; it is Gatsby’s.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby fails to land with the impact I expected. I wanted the story’s themes of decadence, regrets, new vs. old, and wishful thinking to land louder than the booming bass from the speakers. That was wishful thinking on my part. Just like the best song from the preview, Filter’s version of ‘Happy Together’, what I was looking for did not make the final cut.
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Amitabh Bachchan, Jason Clarke