Chet Greason, Popcornucopia
Baz Luhrmann has the tendency to take the pomp and circumstance out of classic tales and grind them down to the blood and guts that made them popular with their original audiences. Case in point, the guy made Shakespeare cool again in the 90s with Romeo + Juliet.
So when it was announced that Luhrmann would direct Hollywood’s newest interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, movie fans knew what to expect: Long montages of glittery soirees set to thumping, auto-tuned songs by artist Pink; fast, cartoony dialogue; lots and lots of colour. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what they got.
Luhrmann’s signature is the flashy party scene. He puts these scenes together like other directors cut action sequences- nothing but super- fast cuts and disorienting POVs. The imagery in Gatsby is not unlike that found in Luhrmann’s other films like Moulin Rouge, with clownish emcees and sequined showgirls doing spastic dances between plot-points. Unfortunately, Luhrmann got somewhat sloppy with Gatsby’s hyperactive cuts. First-viewing alone revealed a ton of lines said out of sync with actors’ mouths.
And yet, despite his focus on the glitz of the roaring twenties, Luhrmann’s Gatsby shows that a decent amount of attention was paid to the book’s heavy usage of symbolism. The green light at the end of the Buchanan’s dock is used so much it’s almost a character in the movie. The eyes of Dr. Eckleburg keep a stern watch over the Valley of Ashes. Luhrmann even works in some symbolism of his own, with repeated appearances of a red biplane during recollections of Gatsby’s past and billowing sheets synonymous with the appearances of Daisy.
The acting runs hot and cold. Leonardo DiCaprio does well as Jay Gatsby. I’ll be honest…the man is 39 years old, and it’s taken me this long to finally not think of the actor as “boyish”. In Gatsby, DiCaprio oozes all the needed charm for the role, and his awkward moments during courtship, though boyish, are comical as they seem so out of character for a confident, grown man. His unwinding, also, unhinges as it reveals this confidence as being paper thin.
Carey Mulligan’s role as Daisy suffers due to lack of appearance. In the book, Daisy charms us, and then breaks our hearts with her callousness as she does Gatsby’s. We don’t see enough of Mulligan in Luhrmann’s film for her to work her magic, and those scenes we do see her in are the wrong ones, full of moping and brimming tears; not bubbly, but rather depressed.
Interestingly, the film goes somewhat easy on Daisy. Far more attention is focused on Gatsby’s obsession with her, implying much of the fault with the story’s tragic ending lies with him.
The film’s lowest point is, without question, Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway. With trademark poor acting and a refusal to open his duck mouth beyond an inch, Maguire gapes and overbites away, wasting precious screen time hawking two of his best facial expressions: “infant awaiting candy” and “prepubescent boy sights his first naked breast.”
Very rarely will you ever hear me say that a film picked up when the romance became the focus, but that is indeed the case with Gatsby. Once Maguire and the ADHD party scenes fade to the background and DiCaprio and Mulligan take centre stage, the film has some real moments.
Bright, dazzling, but not without soul, here’s hoping Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby will make the same connection between F. Scott Fitzgerald and this generation’s young people that he did between Shakespeare and kids in the 90s.