Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is at once the least Baz Luhrmann film to be released in some time and the quintessential Baz Luhrmann film. The latter of these is true for two reasons. Firstly, it is a mess, shot to all hell with a recklessness befitting its title character and pursuing multiple goals simultaneously with no understanding that these goals are somewhat incompatible. Secondly, it doesn’t, not for one second, care that it is a mess. It is a vibrant, passionate film filled with life. So engorged with buoyant energy in fact that it is hard to dislike, for there is a sense that Baz Luhrmann likes his film very much, and his joy seeps through every frame. But directorial passion is not always enough to account for a semi-failure when that passion, however pulsing, is pulling its director in directions that are polar opposites.
But first: the “least Baz Luhrmann film”, something we might suspect to be the victim of Luhrmann adapting another author, and one of the most famous authors of the past hundred years at that. But Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In fact, it is its polar opposite at the most elemental of levels. Fitzgerald’s book, a dissection of the so-called Roaring Twenties and the ruthless joie de vivre that flashed with life and then burnt out twice as quickly, is something much more sinister than a mere poison-pen love letter to the decade. It is sometimes called the Great American Novel (perhaps more than any other novel, save maybe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) for its crisp, caustic anti-ode to the American culture that saw Fitzgerald’s meteoric rise and his self-indulgent self-destruction. It was as much a personal self-apology as a thumping, tight-knit critique of self-exclusion and the daily dialectic of people who were so caught up in the American Dream they forgot to wake up. For them, self-indulgence was the problem but also the answer, and society granted them no alternative beyond subsuming themselves to the rampant individualism that bound them to only themselves and their impending deaths.
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a strange-hued star-crossed lovers tale about Old Money and New Money colliding and destroying everybody. Not only does this fundamentally misinterpret the book, but it is, on a good day, merely morally worrisome and, on a normal day, a lot worse. While Fitzgerald shot through both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, Luhrmann seems to think they’re both okay so long as they stay separate, but this seems accidental. Nothing about Luhrmann’s film really indicates he has anything to say at all about the 1920s other than that they provide him an absolutely glorious backbone upon which he can bind the most spellbinding location-of-the-mind he has yet to permanently inscribe to the film world. The Great Gatsby is an ode to cinema in that it is irrepressibly cinematic, and that is a hard beast to knock down. But boy does Luhrmann try, building up a sympathy for Gatsby the man, a character who is, in the book, as perfect an encapsulation of standoffish American individualism and greedy, unconcerned smugness as you could possibly find. But Luhrmann really wants to like him, and a rather straightforward love story is imprinted on top of the narrative that endlessly fights with Luhrmann’s other much less narrative driven interests, and he has neither the time to explain the love story nor to justify it. Everything about his film sympathizes with Gatsby, even going so far as to test our sympathy with tricks only to flip us on our ears for ever doubting Leonardo DiCaprio’s unbridled charisma and a script endlessly willing to back him up.
So a critique of Old Money we have then, huh? Backed up by Joel Edgerton’s oily, smarmy performance and Carey Mulligan’s distant, vague one as the Old Money Buchanan couple, it would seem so. Tom Buchanan is clearly nothing more than an impediment to our sympathy with Gatsby himself here, and if the film thinks that the supposedly meritocratic success story of the bourgeois Gatsby is superior to Buchanan’s equally mindless aristocratic indulgences, well, boy is that a misinterpretation to the harsh, clipped book upon which it is based, a work that lacks sympathy for anyone and finds America a cesspool of competing immoralities none better or worse than the other.
But Luhrmann is a romantic, and so he wants us to find at least one character to root for. If this be Gatsby, that’s a shame as far as morals and Fitzgerald’s go, but we ought to grant the director his vision if only for the sake of fairness. The real problem then is that the romance is no good from the ground up. For starters, the tale of comically wealthy Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) pinning to steal long-lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) away from her Old Money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), while passive writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) watches and inadvertently becomes involved in his plan, takes what seems like half of the generous 140 minute film to even pass by anyone’s lips (although it is assuredly sooner than that) as a thought. Worse still, it does not fit Luhrmann’s natural talents. This is a filmmaker who is always at his best when he is at his biggest and brashest, wielding color like the lurid child of Michael Powell and Dario Argento and forcing his images to dance on screen like he has a tommy gun pointed at their feet. Which is why, and here is the “least Baz Luhrmman” film part again, it is perplexing that he chose to play the romance primarily in a lower key. The colors are still there, but they’re diluted and muted and leave him mostly relying on his actors who aren’t quite up to par and his script, which is absolutely not his strong suit. This results in a particularly sleepy second act, and sleepy is absolutely the opposite of everything a Baz Luhrmann film needs to be to work.
If only it were this easy to denounce the film, but Luhrmann has to go and do something brilliant here and there. Because when The Great Gatsby is “on”, it is mind-blowingly “on”. Primarily in the first half, and occasionally during the second, Luhrmann absolutely surpasses anything he has yet accomplished in the cinematic world for pure, unmitigated, ravenous style. It is not, and here is the issue, style-as-substance per-se, for everything about his storytelling renders the florid, cacophonous sideshow display of images and sounds purely superficial and not subversive or critical in any meaningful sense. Had the story actually intended to critique Gatsby for his unflappable energy and unstoppable charisma, as the book does, Luhrmann really could have achieved something here at a thematic level. Alas, he doesn’t, but the film comes so close to making it hard to care.
See, Luhrmann is a great cinematic director, particularly attuned to the needs of cinema and note-perfect displays of how to take cinema and play with it in the wildest, most uncontainable ways it possibly can. For a decent portion of this film, he – accompanied by wife and production designer, set designer, and costume designer extraordinaire Catherine Martin – achieves this goal better than he ever has; the fluorescent, phallus-first camera dalliances and glittering, garishly gluttonous resplendence of the production design are, in the abstract, inspired filmic equivalents for Fitzgerald’s punchy, crystalline, bootlegging prose and his toxic concoction of swirling jazz age hedonism and curdled, masqueraded post-war trauma rendered in brash, brazen live-for-the-moment literary strokes. That sense of perpetual-high plastering over the pinprick threat of a come-down into the no-man’s-land of no-future is, however momentarily, glimpsed within Luhrmann’s visual lexicon for Fitzgerald’s pre-beat prose.
Gatsby’s whirlwind parties are madcap flings of devil-may-care camerawork and gilded presentational qualities, absolutely and unequivocally selling and bettering the sense of Gatsby’s life in the book, and really putting the “roaring” in the roaring twenties better than any film yet made. This modern day Bonnie and Clyde of the cinematic world barn-burn through the stilted old ’70s version of the tale and cry golden tears of inescapable joy and cinematic joie de vivre, loading the film up with magisterial mini-movies from head-to-toe that refuse to be beaten down. Such forward-thinking filmmaking these scenes represent (Luhrmann’s handling of driving as a literal rush of confused, manic, drunken, wobbly camerawork may be the greatest ever captured in film), and they do so much good for exploring all that makes Gatsby such a larger-than-life figure to worship (the film is at its best for the masterful first quarter, before we meet Gatsby in person and he is just an idea in people’s heads and a spring in their step). These scenes, particularly Martin’s work, are the best case scenario for inebriating us with this lifestyle, wonderfully effective and amazingly cinematic and unimpeachable on both fronts.
Except, and at some level I feel unfair for bringing the book back up, we aren’t supposed to fall for Gatsby. Well, we are, at first, and Luhrmann is so superb at demanding that we do and entirely convincing, but somewhere, at some point, he’s supposed to pull the rug out from under us and expose the festering lies and rotting corpses upon which such fun is built. The film tries to do that once or twice, and the general thrust of the tragic romance vaguely looks toward the general hemisphere of self-critique, but it never gets there. As it is, it’s just a love story, and not a particularly good one. Luhrmann is at his best when narrative and character are side-concerns at best, and for too much of The Great Gatsby, they are pushed right up to the center. His film becomes a Gatsby all its own, promising so much early on and failing to deliver in the long term. Like with the man’s not-so-fictional life (if Fitzgerald’s own existence is considered), the momentary high is unimaginable and inarguable, but the come-down is a stone-cold killer. To hide ourselves, we just want more of the proverbial momentary superficial good stuff. Poetic irony, I suppose.