Our resident movie guru Rob Ward reviews Baz Luhrmann’s fatally flawed blockbuster.
The Great Gatsby is my favourite book and has been ever since my first encounter with during my A-Levels. I have owned many copies, although the well-thumbed version I currently own (and which I read in one sitting on a recent flight) is probably my favourite: a Penguin Classics edition with a wonderful introductory essay by Tony Tanner.
The romance and subtlety of the novella linger long in the mind, the perfectly crafted prose reveals a gem on every single page, the central characters delight and repel in equal measure. It’s impossible to quite put your finger on The Great Gatsby’s ineffable qualities – largely thanks to F Scott Fitzgerald’s skill and craft in creating a tale in which responsibility, morality, right and wrong are fluid concepts which can be repeatedly interpreted and reinterpreted according to the readers’ mood.
Baz Luhrmann is a film-maker capable of no such subtlety. His bombastic, over-the-top productions fizz and sparkle with energy: the epitome of style over substance. As a teacher, my love/hate relationship with his Romeo & Juliet sees me laud its attempts to make Shakespeare accessible whilst simultaneously despising it for mangling the very essence of what Shakespeare is all about: beautifully constructed, poetic dialogue.
Here, surprisingly, much of Fitzgerald’s source material survives intact. Whole scenes are lifted verbatim from the novella, with occasional snatches of prose flashed up on screen. While the original dialogue fizzes and crackles, the same cannot be said of Luhrmann’s clumsy attempts to pay tribute to Fitzgerald’s words.
Bizarrely he has added an entirely unnecessary framing device, turning Nick Carroway’s (Tobey Maguire) famously unreliable narrator into a recovering alcoholic telling his tale to a shrink after a nervous breakdown. There is no rhyme nor reason for this decision, and even Luhrmann seems to lose faith in it halfway through the movie, abandoning it in favour of Nick typing his ‘confessional’ up as a book.
Other than this, the narrative is a fairly straightforward telling of the tale. Sadly, the film’s myriad problems can be attributed not to the storyline but to the stylistic devices employed by the director. The baffling decision to make the film in 3D is utterly unjustifiable: an affectation surely designed only to make still more money at the box office. Some early whizz-bang effects fall utterly flat thanks largely to the lame CGI which give an unconvincingly plastic sheen to the sets. Perhaps this is deliberate – an allusion to the false appearances which permeate the plot – but it only succeeds in lending a feel of plasticky inauthenticity to proceedings.
The film is, of course, all about appearances. The deceptively simple story is that of Nick, a Wall Street bondsman who coincidentally winds up living next door to the titular Gatsby. His mysterious neighbour is famed for his wild parties, yet is rarely seen – although often spoken about. Rumours abound that he’s involved in bootlegging, organised crime or even murder.
Nick’s cousin, the flighty Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the water from them, married to the boorish polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s a serial womaniser with a string of affairs and a brassy mistress in the city – none of which is kept secret from his wife or anyone else. So when the enigmatic Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is in love with Daisy – and has been since they first met and had an affair five years previously – the wheels are literally set in motion for a battle of wills between the two men as they seek to capture (or recapture) Daisy’s love.
Tobey Maguire fails to convince as Nick – a major failing in a film which is told through his eyes. Despite his constant assertions that he is ‘within yet without’, he never really convinces as an observer. Instead, he is involved throughout – usually staring vacantly around him like an awed child, seemingly too gormless to really appreciate the world around him. Perhaps Luhrmann realised this – he certainly doesn’t seem to trust Maguire’s delivery of the poetic prose and chooses to reinforce it by having it appear on screen as it is spoken. This is hugely misjudged.
Other characters fair better: Edgerton is fantastic as the brusque Tom, Mulligan plays Daisy convincingly, Jason Clarke is excellent as the cuckolded George Wilson. Key to the whole thing, though, is Jay Gatsby – the enigma at the film’s centre.
For me, the only actor that could ever convincingly play the part would be a young Richard Gere, but Leonardo DiCaprio was arguably the ideal contemporary choice. He’s slimmer than he’s been in some time, the boyishness of his early performances in Titanic and Romeo & Juliet restored. Perhaps more than anyone else involved, DiCaprio seems to understand the essence of Gatsby, but his performance is undermined by some seriously flawed direction.
Although Gatsby’s insalubrious activities are implied in the novella, Gatsby is never revealed with any certainty to be involved in the criminal underworld. Here, though, everything is made explicit: bootlegging, fraud, extra-marital sex with Daisy. Baz Luhrmann has fatally misunderstood the book , failing entirely to realise that Gatsby’s ambiguity is vital to the success of the story. He is the only morally decent man on show – someone who believes in the power of love and somehow transcends the squalid debauchery of the New York scene. Here, though, the explicitness of his wrongdoing prevents the audience from making their own minds up about whether they can reconcile his criminality with his romanticism. It’s a fatal flaw.
Having singularly failed to recognise the real heart of the film, one has to wonder exactly why Luhrmann chose to make it in the first place – until you realise that it gives him exactly the kind of canvas on which to paint his gaudy, over-the-top mish-mash of genres and styles. The cartoon absurdity of Tom’s affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) is excruciating to watch, the extended party scenes are unforgivably dull, Jay Z’s soundtrack is painfully out of place, and the quick fire editing is simply atrocious.
Only when Luhrmann, seemingly tired of showy pyrotechnics, relies on the strength of Fitzgerald’s writing does the film really work: the tense, sweat soaked scene in which Tom and Gatsby face off over Daisy is beautifully acted, unfussy and uses the book’s dialogue verbatim. It hints at what this movie might have been had it been directed by someone with even an inkling of what it is that makes Gatsby great.
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