The Great Gatsby – there ain’t no party like a Jay Gatsby party, especially when Baz Luhrmann is the host

Baz Luhrmann has never been one to shy away from an extravagant production. His first three films, named The Red Curtain Trilogy, certainly proved that. Made up of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, all three scream glam theatricals, with luxuriant design, quirky characters and opulence oozing from the screen at every moment. His last feature film, Australia, although critically panned and more serious and grounded than his other work, still showed he had a vast scope and ambition when it comes to his filmmaking. Now Baz Luhrmann has returned with another lavish feature: his own adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the classic American novel written by the eminent F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The time is the roaring 20’s: booze is banned, hedonism is in and there are plenty of opportunities for people to make money, fast. Young writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a writer and graduate of Yale, moves to New York to start a new life and cash in on the good times. His cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives nearby with her wealthy beau Tom (Joel Edgerton) an ex-polo player, and an even bigger player when it comes to other women. But even closer to Nick is a large mansion that looms over his tiny cottage – a place supposedly belonging to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). One day Nick happens to receive an invitation to one of Gatsby’s legendary parties and before he knows it, he is thrown into the Gatsby world of good times, parties and the enigmatic man himself.

The first obvious point to make about this film is that there is no better director who could have been more matched to this production than Baz Luhrmann himself. As with Moulin Rouge! it seems that his style is perfectly suited to the hedonistic lifestyle on display in Fitzgerald’s story. The direction for every scene is excellent, each moment choreographed to perfection as Luhrmann yet again creates a sort of musical, although this time with no actual singing. The highlight among these is undoubtedly the party scenes at Gatsby’s house – the colours, glitz, glam and rich variety of characters draws you in and enraptures you, just as they do to Nick. The soundtrack here and in other parts of the film also lends itself perfectly to the story – a clever mix of jazz style band music and modern hip-hop, RnB and pop. This won’t be everyone’s tastes, in particular people who would have preferred to hear a soundtrack that uses authentic music of the time. But Luhrmann’s choice for this as the backing to his film works as it did in Moulin Rouge! – by choosing this sort of music Luhrmann cleverly shows how the hedonism of the 20’s still lives on in today’s society when more people are obsessed with having a good time and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous than ever before.

Yet lurking behind this rich lifestyle, and indeed lurking on the peripherals of Carraway’s and Gatsby’s world, are the people on the different side of the tracks at the poorer end of town. Luhrmann’s direction and the film’s design works for this community in an entirely different way, the people in this grey industrial town all covered in dirt and dust, moving slowly as if in a trance. And while the poor move slowly, literally and metaphorically, on the rich side of town everyone moves quickly, moving almost at double speed sometimes. It’s little moments like this that show the rich detail with which this film has been made and proves that every single instance has been given consideration and designed to perfection – a great achievement that is highly impressive when you see it in action.

However there is one fatal flaw with the film. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby seems to suffer from that age-old problem: style vs. substance. While Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s script of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is excellent, bringing in all the necessary details and moments from that classic story, the narrative doesn’t always stand up amongst Luhrmann’s opulence. In fact some scenes are so weak that you find yourself looking at the scenery rather than engaging in the story. This happens in particular during the early scenes in which it’s all parties, dancing and booze, while much-needed characterisation is sacrificed. This also means that for the latter parts of the narrative (in particular the entire last act) when Luhrmann does choose to dial down the style to focus on the plot and finally delve deeper into the life of Gatsby, the film shifts and becomes something different. Rather than being more engaging though, this sudden change makes it disjointed. And because the audience up to this point have been used to seeing more of style and less of character, this in turn makes these final scenes less interesting to watch. If the balance between style and narrative had been maintained throughout, then maybe these final acts wouldn’t have seemed so strange and disengaging in comparison.

It is the performances in these later moments that keep you just about watching to the end though. The Great Gatsby firmly shows that Leonardo DiCaprio really is one of the best actors around at the moment – he first creates Gatsby as a charming, illustrious man who can put no foot wrong with anyone. But later on DiCaprio starts to reveal the cracks in his veneer, slowly stripping away his layers to offer a glimpse of the true man beneath. Carey Mulligan is also superb (as usual) as Daisy. She too is a person concealing more than meets the eye, with a playful, chipper exterior, but a hidden heart full of emotions. Joel Edgerton is also worth a mention as Tom Buchanan the burly and unfaithful husband of Daisy, who manages to avoid pantomime villainy by creating a despicable character who underneath still knows where his true feelings lie. It is Tobey Maguire who seems the most lost in the film though. Even though his character is the narrator of the story and he gives an adequate enough performance as Nick, he doesn’t make a lasting enough impression at any point really, a huge shame considering the importance of his character.

And now to a thorny issue that had me torn from the start about The Great Gatsby: the 3D. As you probably already know I am firmly among those people who do not like 3D films. I think on some occasions it can work, for an animated film say. But there is no getting around the fact that after a while it becomes flat anyway as your eyes adjust to it and that the glasses take away the colour from the film when you wear them. And I think that the argument about 3D immersing you more in the world of the film is nonsensical – if anything I think it pulls you out of the film when you’re constantly being made aware of it. Therefore I chose to see The Great Gatsby in 2D. I have to say though for the party scenes I can imagine they would look pretty spectacular in an extra dimension. Later on in the film though when it’s all drama and no spectacle? – the 3D would add nothing at all. I think that although the concept is a nice idea Luhrmann should have left the film as is – it is fun and beautiful enough in 2D without the added dimension.

While The Great Gatsby is an enjoyable film while it lasts, an uneven script and emphasis on style leaves it unbalanced and wearisome to watch at times. That being said, DiCaprio and Mulligan are riveting and they truly carry the film later on. And despite the frustration that there is too much focus on the look of it, there’s really no denying that Baz Luhrmann’s wacky direction and glam style are breathtaking to see in action. You’ll want to revisit Jay Gatsby’s world just to see this hedonistic lifestyle and lavish design again, as well as the enigmatic and charming Gatsby himself, but Luhrmann’s use of story is nowhere near what it should have been to make this a classic film adaptation that will stand the test of time, as Fitzgerald’s book has done over the years.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on June 3, 2013.

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