Personally, Baz Luhrmann is one of the more eccentric visionary directors working in the film medium. His productions of Moulin Rouge! and Strictly Ballroom were workings of masterful story-telling fused with an over-ripe visual and editing style which audiences have come to love about Luhrmann films. However, does this interesting mixture provide a base for the long-lasting story by F. Scott Fitzgerald? It could have.
This rendition of The Great Gatsby again solidifies previous reservations about the movie in it of the fact that this novel is an un-filmable book. Every previous incarnation of it on screen cannot do the justice it requires to the novel. And this is due to one major factor: the prose are what make the story interesting, other than that it is a relatively shallow work with little to no characterization outside the main character. This does not make the original work a bad piece of literature. In fact, it’s one of the more eclectic works of literature because it is so well written.
There is a certain feeling that Luhrmann had also realized this possibility, since his newest addition to the adaptations this year used more straight narration out of the novel than any other that has come before it. This could have been a real strong descion, however it falls through due to its overuse and consistently occurring inappropriate placement. Now, considering Luhrmann also wrote the screenplay for the film (along with Craig Pearce who has co-written the majority of Luhrmann’s films), there obviously is a personal connection to the material and it is evident in the gusto and drive that the film is presented. This however begins he issue. Baz Luhrmann sabatoged his own film.
To clarify, the film seems simultaneously incomplete as well as struggling exactly on what it wants to be. The pacing is unbearably uneven with the first two acts blazing by in a flurry of CGI and (straight out of nowhere) modern music (including dubstep from Flux Pavilion) to the third act dragging on unbearably long. The shot composition couldn’t make up its mind between a very stylized presentation throughout the film (as in Moulin Rouge!) or a more realistic interpretation. The lip-syncing to the actors throughout the majority of the film is absolutely horrible and beyond noticeable from the very beginning. The larger portions of CGI sets that Luhrmann used so artfully before are now very low-fi and (again) seemingly incomplete.
Though the party sequences are very grandiose and delightfully distracting, almost urging the audience in a way to participate in the crazy comradely, it is not enough to hold the important details that occur at each interval. Though many would be calling this film sacrificing story for style, this film cannot really even declare this, since it appears so rushed into release without constant drive or clear focus. The convoluting presentation is combated by stellar performances by the whole cast. Tobey Maguire has had a few good performances to his credit (most specifically Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and in this role; he actually shines as probably the strongest actor in the film next to Joel Edgerton (who completely owns the part of Tom Buchanan). He captures the essence of Nick Carraway that probably wasn’t actually brought out by Luhrmann. Interestingly enough, the weakest actor in the whole ensemble was Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby.
Though he put in a venerably decent effort in re-envisioning the character into something unique, DiCaprio never sold the idea that he actually was Gatsby on screen. He was wrapped in the character, though the character never fit him. There have been a total of five film adaptations sporting Gatsby since 1926 (with the fist film hosting no surviving copies) and each have tried to give life to Gatsby that is barely even found amidst the pages of the novel. The intrigue of Gatsby is that the audience is just as curious to know the truth about the character as Carraway. However, this attitude is never fully committed enough to actually translate to screen in this or in any version. The novel is a testament of the era in which it was written as well as a benchmark in how to construct and write a compelling story. And when adapting such a pinnacle work of literature, a film adaptation must take the same efforts at painstakingly translating text to actions on screen that it would take many years (if possible at all) and many creative minds in order for it to be equally effective as it is endearing.
Though the whole of the film is a right mess with a mixed focus and inappropriately jarring assembly, pieces of the work stand out as being some of the best work seen yet from Luhrmann. Most specifically a scene toward the film’s climax involving the main characters in a hotel room attempting to deal with the extreme heat of a summer day where Gatsby and Buchanan come to blows. This scene is so well acted, so well edited and filmed that it is quite surprising it is in the same movie as all of the material that came before it. The film feels as if more than one person shot it, and it can be considered that director of photography Simon Duggan (cinematographer for Alex Proyas’ sophomore effort Garage Days) was responsible for this scene where the heavy green screen and stylization can be marked up to Luhrmann’s eccentricity.
And finally it comes down to holding to the time period. Whereas so much of the scenery and action is computer animated, personally investiture in what was actually real was very difficult, especially with the fusion of period swing and jazz and modern rap, hip-hop and electronic music. If this was a reimagining of Gatsby’s world in an alternate reality where time periods melds (such as The City of Lost Children and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes) it could have worked. But when the film calms down, it holds so strictly to the period action and details that the rest of the film not only doesn’;t mesh but seems actually stupid in comparison. One cannot fault someone for trying to styalize a work so that their personal artistic stamp is what is in the forefront, but when it is a period drama, they must hold to a singular idea for it.
How it is done right and how horribly it can go wrong are reflected in two films. Django Unchained is the perfect example of a recent film blending modern elements (such as Rick Ross and RZA musical tracks) into that of the story in which it makes logical sense for being there as well as appropriate action on screen to justify it being there. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is on par with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Now Sofia is an amazing director, and The Bling Ring is personally near the top of upcoming films that are a ‘must watch’, but her retelling of the great historical figure Antoinette was done very similarly: confused style over hard substance. Not only portraying Marie Antoinette in a light that downplayed her intelligence, her complexity and her major role in the government of France, but also montage sequences and inappropriate (unauthentic and unrealistic) characterization with modern pop music that took the audiences out of the story and made them less willing to be sucked back in (or less able). This is the exact issue with Luhrmann’s film. Though effort really was put into aspects of the production to make it a stand-alone picture in comparison to the other adaptations of Fitzgerald’s work, it falls on its face due to its overreaching and ham-handed completion that tends to highly irritate audiences regardless of how amazing the visuals. Sam Raimi was able to mix great story telling, strong acting and an overwhelmingly impressive visual experience with Oz: The Great and Powerful, whereas Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby tries and only scratches the surface at the potential it had and never seized.
Written By: Matthew Roe