Great Gatsby: Luhrmann's Jazzy Spectacle

Opens May 10–Cannes Film Fest Opening Night

As conceived and directed by Baz Luhrmann, “The Great Gatsby” is a jazzy postmodern spectacle, a presumably corrective and revisionist version that actually misinterprets the essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notable novel, which continues to touch emotionally and haunt dramatically readers and filmmakers alike.


Luhrmann’s mishmash of a movie is the equivalent of a fruit cocktail, in which there are too many ingredients, as if to make sure that the drink is tasty, or at least not bland/, but the ingredients don’t mix well, resulting in sharply uneven, incoherent work.

World premiering in h U.S. on May 10, “The Great Gatsby” was selected as opening night (May 15) of the Cannes Film Fest, where Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” had premiered in 2001 (also as opener). Likely to divide critics, “The Great Gatsby” stands a slim chance to recover its huge production budget domestically, but it could appeal o younger viewers, who are not familiar with Fitzgerald’s well respected novel and may be intrigued by the cool music.

Just like the first 20 minutes of “Moulin Rouge,” which were visualy dazzling but disorienting, the first reel of thisovie, co-written by Luhrmann and his frequent collaborator, Craig Pearce, is particularly weak, unfolding as a series of lavish parties, spectacle of sounds and lights, to which everyone and anyone in New York (and, by extension, the audience) is invited. It’s as if the director did not trust the source material, and also felt that he had to justify the use of 3D technology and the escalating budget of over $120 million, the biggest budget allotted to Luhrmann’s to date.

Overall, the movie does not benefit much from the 3D, which is sizzling in a superficial way, but more often than not distract attention from the central strands of the book, which in its critique of the American Dream and the manners and mores of the power elite has continued to affect readers for nearly a century, ever since it was published.

One can understand Luhrmann’s need to distinguish is version from the previous four or five Hollywood renditions. But he has ended up making a cinema of excess and surface. By now it’s clear that Australia’s enfant terrible has a distinctive film vision, albeit a very limited one,, which he has applied one for twenty years to all of his films, regardless of their literary source material.

This strategy worked when the material (narrative, plot) was slight, such as “Strictly Ballroom,” which put Luhrmann on the movie map in 1992, and “Moulin Rouge”” (his most inventive and successful work to date, because they were musicals, a genre that lends himself to the director’s fertile (and perverse) visual imagination.

It yielded mixed results in “Shkekspeare’s Rome+Juliet,” Luhrmann’s first teaming with the estimable DiCaprio, back in 1996, but backfired with “Australia,” an artistic and commercial flop in which Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman not only embarrassed themselves but also proved that stars cannot elevate Luhrmann’s work, if the narrative foundations are not right.

This is also one of the problems of “The Great Gatsby,” which the director has cast after long audition processes. But, alas, of the three central actors, only DiCaprio, as Gatsby, gives a commanding and compelling performance that’s faithful to Fitzgerald’s conception in all the multi-nuanced shading of the character..

One of this rendition’s main shortcoming is Tobey Maguire, who, nominally, has the bigger roles, Nick Caraway. Nick serves as one part of the triangle (and later quartet), and as the narrator, in a movie that relies heavily on voice-overs. Most of the events in the film are shown from his P.O.V. and his commentary is inserted throughout the film.
Luhrmann is nothing if not ambitious: In this adaptation, he wishes to combines his distinctive visual, musical, and storytelling styles in 3D, while remaining faithful to Fitzgerald’s text and also bearing relevance to contemporary audiences.

That elusive and persistent ideological concept–the American Dream—serves as a guiding light for all five characters. Nick Carraway leaves the Midwest for New York City in the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks. Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby, and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy, and her rich, philandering husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton)

It is easy to understand why a naïve and innocent guy like Nick would be drawn into the captivating world of the rich and powerful elite, their illusions, loves and deceits. H bears witness, as he himself says, both within and without of the world he observes and only partially inhabits. In the process, he begins to write a tale of impossible love, based on incorruptible dreams, and leading to a devastating tragedy.

Nick, the narrator (who, in the novel is writing the story of the Great Gatsby), describes his neighbor as shadowy, corrupt, ambitious, but ultimately inspiring, a man with “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, an extraordinary gift for hope, such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”

The biggest challenge—how to express dramatically Nick inner life, is only partially met by the filmmakers, a function of the conceptual writing and of Maguire’s undistinguished performance. Though already in his 40s, Maguire has maintained his boyish quality and limited vocal range. That he lacks overtly erotic appeal makes things worse. He is the only male in the film who has no independent life, including romance and sex.

Carey Mulligan, the gifted British actress (who was so good in the Oscar-nominated “Ëducation”) has her moments in a tough, challenging role, full of ambiguities, but she lacks the gorgeous beauty, the luminous personality of a woman that stood between three men and was worshipped by all of them—albeit in vastly different ways.

It takes about half an hour for DiCaprio’s Gatsby to make an appearance, and through Nick’s narration, we get brief glimpses into his life–or rather lives. A man of many masks, he is rumored have killed a man, a German spy or a hero in WWI, an entrepreneur who rose from poverty to become a rich man, a criminal connected with the Mafia. And it’s a tribute to DiCaprio’s considerable range that he can act any of these faces wit credibility. A complex, evasive, mysterious, romantic, glamorous, and mythic man, DiCaprio captures vividly Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby as a man who possesses the kind of rare smile that possesses a quality of reassurance, while able to change it within a flash into the look of a man who had killed.”

Unfortunately, the secondary characters are all underdeveloped. Isla Fisher is too broad and stereotypical as Myrtle, one of Tom’s mistresses. Elizabeth Debicki plays Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald’s notion of the new breed of women, as a tall, elegant femme with nothing interesting to do or to say. Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan is decent as Meyer Wolfshiem. The only supporting actor who registers strongly is Jason Clark as Myrtle’s working-class husband, who ultimately takes the law in his hands and shoots Gatsby in cold blood (while the latter is taking a swim in his pool).

As far as I am concerned, there has never been a completely satisfying, fully realized Hollywood version of the book, and those efforts would include the Alan Ladd and Bette Fields version, as well as the Robert Redford and Mia Farrow rendition of 1974, under the direction of Jack Clayton, which was both an artistic and commercial flop. (I have not seen the Made for TV movie starring Mira Sorvino as Daisy).

A longer review will be published later today