The Great Gatsby
Synopsis: Baz Luhrmann adapts F. Scott Fitzgerald's acclaimed story of jealousy and intrigue among the idly rich in New York's Long Island in the roaring twenties. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is lured into the lavish world of his billionaire neighbour, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his lost love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). After a tumultuous summer, cracks appear in Gatsby's mystique, and his obsession for reclaiming the love of Daisy reaches boiling point.
Manic adaptation longs for lighter touch.
Luhrmann stays faithful to the themes, but remains as keen as ever to resort to cliché
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Through the prism of a 1922 heatwave, The Great Gatsby's narrator Nick Carraway relays the goings on when his distant cousin (Daisy Buchanan) encounters her jilted former sweetheart (Jay Gatsby), her brutish husband (Tom Buchanan) takes exception, and all hell breaks loose.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cutting jazz-age tale of a self-made millionaire and the romantic folly upon which his empire was built, foretold of the end of a party that was barely in full-swing; it spoke of an unsustainable boom that was still years away from bust. Through Nick's internal monologue we sense the collision between Old and New Money, and deduce that’s something’s rotten in the stately homes of Long Island’s East and West Eggs.
There’s a reason why none of the film adaptations of The Great Gatsby have come close to emulating the spirit of the novel. No one has yet hit upon a way to overcome the challenge of Fitzgerald’s own well-crafted sentences; what visual storytelling method can do justice to Nick’s acerbic adjectives? (Certainly not Francis Ford Coppola’s faithful but dreary 1974 adaptation, directed by Jack Warner and starring Robert Redford as the blue-eyed dreamer.) It says much that the most acclaimed adaptation to date is not an adaptation at all, but is simply a 7-hour staged live-read from the pages of the book (NYC’s Elevator Repair Company’s Gatz). Without Nick to articulate the decline, The Great Gatsby is reduced to little more than a love triangle between the remotely rich.
Of course Baz Luhrmann would step up to mount a new attempt to bring Gatsby to the screen; with his own monogrammed empire devoted to all things lavish, Luhrmann invites comparisons between himself and Gatsby (“He is Gatsby,” his wife and chief collaborator Catherine Martin told the New York Times).
In approaching the film on its premiere in Cannes, I vacillated between thinking that Baz was either the best or the worst person to be put in charge of the adaptation of a sacred text. On the one hand, I imagined how he might apply his manufactured brand of ‘Bazzamatazz’ to fabled goings-on at Jay Gatsby’s mansion, the scene of all-night parties that New York’s elite want a piece of. On the other hand, I wondered how on earth a self-styled Gatsby would handle the matter of the inherent superficiality of an egocentric empire built on an illusory idea. Could he accurately depict the contradictions of the elusive Gatsby, and tease out a coherent critique of the fair-weather flapper who represents his unattainable prize? Also, I remember Australia. Had sufficient time passed for bombastic Baz to reflect on that misfire and apply those ‘learnings’ into his screenwriting techniques, before he next attempted an epic?
Having now seen the film, I think I was right to worry, but it was unfair to worry quite so much. Luhrmann stays faithful to the themes, but remains as keen as ever to resort to cliché.
In his CV, The Great Gatsby most resembles 1996’s Romeo + Juliet; a past collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio which received considerable fanfare. In that film he brought Shakespeare into a contemporary setting, replete with Hawaiian shirts, roller-blading angels, and Radiohead on the soundtrack. For the most part, it worked. But it helped that he had a performance-based text as his source material.
In this Gatsby 2.0, Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce attempt to resolve the narrative dilemma by shifting forward to the doomed days of 1929, and having Nick (Tobey Maguire) fulfil his stated ambitions to write about the tragic enigma that was his next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The resulting novel thus becomes the foundation of the film, with partial passages recited as voice over and on-screen text at key intervals. This is a convenient device that might have worked well if they’d simply stopped there. But this is a Baz Luhrmann film we’re talking about, so of course they didn’t. So Baz goes further, and has Nick checked into a sanitarium, beset by a conga-line of afflictions; his case file cites alcoholism and anxiety, and he also displays a depressive fixation on his experiences ‘back east’. His kindly shrink – played by a learned Jack Thompson – encourages him to commit pen to paper, in a bid to ‘work through’ his malaise. The ‘writing as therapy’ conceit lifts from aspects of Fitzgerald’s own autobiography (The Crack-Up), so, you might say it’s a nod to historical accuracy, but it’s a weird meld of author and character. At the very least, it gets the story started, even it if does come across as a hokey way to generate intrigue and foreboding (and the therapy plot gets ditched somewhere along the way).
Elsewhere, Luhrmann and Pearce cherry pick scenes and passages, condense some characterisations and embellish others in a bid to service the story (for better and, equally, for worse). One clever diversion is Luhrmann’s decision to apply a 21st century soundtrack to the early 20th century proceedings, with music supervised by Jay-Z (who gets an executive producer credit) and Swizzy Beats. The blend of contemporary music in a vintage setting works well (especially if it shifts the soundtrack on iTunes) and gives a sense of what it’s like to be one of the 24-hour party people that Gatsby attracts to his mansion for weekend revelry. (There’s inflatable zebras! Fireworks! Glitter-bomb magnums of Moet!) To Luhrmann’s credit, the amped-up visuals make for a far better demonstration of the party vibe than previous adaptations have managed (it certainly shows up the 1974 version, for instance, in which the ‘energy’ largely consisted of close-ups of saggy stockings heading south from vigorous Charlestoning). In other scenes, when Daisy is moved to tears by Gatsby’s showy shirt-flinging, it’s to the strains of Lana Del Ray.
In keeping with his tradition of ‘more is more’ (Strictly Ballroom: More sequins! Romeo + Juliet: More undercranking! Moulin Rouge: More medleys! Australia: More… endings!) Baz’s visuals are typically unrestrained, and he makes full use of the extra dimension that advancements in display technology offer him. Proximity is everything to Gatsby, the man who built an empire in order to be nearer to Daisy (or to all that the longing for her has come to represent). And so it is also with Baz and his condensed visuals. He plants you where he wants you, and rushes you headlong into the next bit of CG-enhanced splendour: Look here! No, wait! Look here! It works a treat in the Gatsby party scenes, to give you a sense of the raucousness of the amusement park-like atmosphere, but it wears thin in moments of reflection (to the extent that Baz allows for such pause), like when a pensive Gatsby is observed, reaching out across the bay. Never one to risk letting a symbol slip from his grasp without signposting it, and in this case, actually turning it neon, our director labours the meaning of the light on Daisy’s pier. The light, the green light. That one there. Can you see it? Here, let’s get a close up! (If you thought his patented rapid-zoom flyovers were exhausting before, just wait until you’re catapulted towards Daisy’s dock, in glorious 3D).
Bizarrely, Luhrmann (and production designer Martin) plants Nick’s and Gatsby’s houses in such close proximity that Nick has a direct eyeline to all of the rooms in the wing of Gatsby mansion that sits nearest his own crummy cottage. The moneyed recluse and his work-a-day neighbour are seen exchanging pleasantries and knowing nods at all hours of the day and night from inside their respective abodes; one scene even implies that Nick can glean the content of one of Gatsby’s heated business calls, from glancing up at a floor-to-ceiling window, three floors off the ground. At night. (In a later scene, when paparazzi are jostling at the front gate, the thought occurs that a wily pap could just make a beeline for Nick’s front verandah to score an unobstructed ‘scoop’). It’s a spatial curiosity that undermines the key part of Gatsby’s makeup: the unknowable recluse whose opacity offers the opportunity to manufacture his own mythology. (PS: Though costume and production design generally are befitting a magazine spread, I swear I saw a telltale orange streak on Gatsby’s tan face in one scene).
On the plus side, DiCaprio is an excellent fit for Gatsby, his steely gaze managing to dominate the frame – no mean feat when his ‘big reveal’ comes with a side order of fireworks. The charming veneer of the Movie Star is ably adapted to that of the smirking mystery man with the sketchy backstory whose unspecified business dealings are merely a means to an end.
Maguire mugs his wide eyes for all they’re worth as Gatsby’s neighbour-cum-confidante, Nick, in various stages of naïvete, drunkenness and fury. Carey Mulligan is panting and whimsical as Daisy, the ‘fragrant phantom’ of Gatsby’s lost youth, though Baz softens her by curbing her worst displays of cynicism. A standout is Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s BFF Jordan Baker, though the gamine creature does get short-changed in the characterisation – there’s no mention of her romance with Nick, nor does her “incurably dishonest” streak get a look-in.
Weaker casting choices are in Joel Edgerton’s turn as Daisy’s philandering, ‘hulking’ husband, Tom Buchanan, described on paper as “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax”. Despite Edgerton’s best efforts, his performance lacks the arrogant malice of a racist brute. If anything, he might have been better switching roles with Jason Clarke, who seems completely miscast as the put-upon cuckold Wilson, whose missus (Isla Fisher) is cavorting with Tom, and who turns into the mouse that roared.
It’s easy to get precious about adapting great literature and I like that Baz has at least been bold enough to try to make it spring from the page, to breathe new life into a text that many might not yet have read.
But for all of its frenetic energy, it’s a film with significant flaws, no matter what the source material.
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