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Review: Baz Luhrmann’s
The Great Gatsby
I’ve always been a huge supporter and defender for quirktastic film director and father of the ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’ Baz Luhrmann. I haven’t met a soul who wasn’t touched by the music, artistry, creativity and general spectacle of Moulin Rouge, never mind an individual who didn’t watch the credits with tears obscuring their vision. And though it tends to earn mored mixed opinion, I was an avid fan of Romeo + Juliet and its fresh take on the consistently over-done (but still much beloved) Shakespearean classic. Although his symbolism was at times, to understate, heavy-handed, I found the images nonetheless both beautiful and powerful. Maybe its merely because this film was my first introduction into the world of modernized Shakespeare, but I found the little attempts at modernization (the television reporter, the Sword-brand firearms) clever, and the added motif of water which bound the lovers particularly compelling.
Luhrmann’s strength is not in his characters. Nor is it, truly, in his story-telling. I find his hap-hazard (though purposefully so) style of editing generally calls for a few viewings before the material can be fully understood. His strength lies, undeniably, in his imagery. Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio first glimpsing one another through a fish tank and John Leguizamo’s death and fall into the fountain in Romeo + Juliet; Satine’s diamond-studded, cold-lighted, mid-air introduction as the seductive Satine and her dramatic embrace with Ewan McGregor atop the dazzling elephant statue, with a backdrop of dazzling fireworks, a soaring score and an opera-singing moon, mustachioed moon.
The Great Gatsby is no exception, chock full of unusual, elaborate, intensely over-the-top images. It is undeniably a beautiful film, full of color, composition and a certain ostentatiousness; yet unlike Luhrmann’s previous works, in which his outrageous presentation and creativity were the saving graces of his projects, it is in great deal thanks to this excessiveness that Gatsby fails to have the proper impact upon his audience.
As reviewer Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone, “Aside from the staggering beauty of Catherine Martin’s costumes, nothing works. The actors are buried in art direction, along with feeling.” I wouldn’t say that’s completely true; while Catherine Martin’s costumes are indeed breathtaking, so are the sets, the stunning aerials of a computer-rendered 1920’s New York City, the distinctly Luhrmann-esque incorporation of modern hip-hop and other, raunchier touches that attempt to sync 20’s style atmosphere with the current decade’s understanding of culture. But while all these aspects of the film are lovely as separate parts of an equation, piece them together and the math doesn’t add up. The music is well-chosen for the tone of the film but incorrectly used from scene-to-scene; the glitz and glamour of the backdrops, the city, the outfits and the elaborate parties are wonderful as additional touches but end up fighting with the story itself for dominance. In the end, as Travers states, the extravagant art direction is beautiful but buries anything real the film may have to offer in an overwhelming avalanche of champagne and confetti.
Luhrmann takes the immortal words of F. Scott Fitzgerald and sets them to gorgeous, prismatic images, but while the frames are lovely to gaze upon he fails to effectively convey the story and emotion Fitzgerald so artfully crafted. In consequence, rather than appearing as a coherent tale filled with faceted characters, crests of hope and the crushing trenches of betrayal, the film plays as merely a pretty little picture book for the words Fitzgerald penned all those years ago; at multiple points, his words actually appear in print on the screen, floating above Tobey Maguire’s head as he sits at his typewriter.
The worst thing about Luhrmann’s over-abundant bombardment of glitzy imagery is that we’re so adjusted to the extravagance that, when a scene comes along with actual emotional and narrative resonance, they seem to simply sail by. One example of this is a scene involving Myrtle, being when she is slapped by Tom for mentioning Daisy’s name. That she is in a flowing red robe with scarlet feathers, that the scene is sandwiched by dizzying, drunken jump-cut antics, and that the actual act of Tom physically harming her is shown in slow-motion and looks more like a clip out of Wile E. Coyote than a piece of serious drama; all of these detract severely from what should be a moment that causes the audience to sit up and take notice. In contrast to the absurdity that surrounds it, Tom’s act of violence would have carried a great deal more weight had the music been cut, the colors dulled, and shown in real time, grounding the viewer and jolting them out of the dream-like fantasy these ludicrously wealthy characters enjoy and back into the real world, where such atrocities occur.
When it comes to the cast, I think the decisions vary from spot-on to dead-wrong. I’ll be up-front in letting you know I’m a huge fan of one Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio. He can do very little wrong in my eyes, so I saw his depiction of Gatsby as a solid performance, despite the clear struggle to convey any emotion underneath the weight of all that unnecessary glitz and glamor. And while many criticized the choice of Carey Mulligan for the achingly beautiful Daisy Buchanan, I thought she was an excellent choice, absolutely dripping with Southern home-town charm and entirely believable as the object of Gatsby’s affection. Her character, however, is transformed from a shallow and disinterested girl to a confused and overwhelmed young woman worthy of some sympathy. In the case of Nick Carraway, both the casting of Tobey Maguire and the film’s characterization come across entirely wrong. His constant reliance on wide-eyed stares, and precious little other expression, quickly grows tiresome. Maguire’s inability to express strong emotion, often laughable and apparent in many of his other works, are a detriment in the more serious of his scenes, while Nick’s idolization of Gatsby and his hatred of all the other characters is nearly impossible to understand.
In the end, Luhrmann succeeds in creating another visually dazzling cinematic work but fails rather substantially in transposing the characters, themes and emotions of Fitzgerald’s great novel to the big screen. It’s worth a viewing perhaps for the spectacle alone, but its unlikely to evoke any philosophical thought or emotion. Much like Daisy, it is a specimen coated in a sparkling and glossy sheen but remains, on the inside, quite empty.