Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
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Say something enough times and it begins to lose all meaning. The Great Gatsby, adapted from the classic American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is essentially two and a half hours of people saying the word “Gatsby” over and over again. By the end, it’s a faintly hollow experience.
You wonder how much Baz Luhrmann enjoys the meaning of The Great Gatsby to begin with. Spinning the tale of the American Dream gone wrong into a romantic love story, he latches on to the emotion and razzle-dazzle of Fitzgerald’s roaring 20s, a heady Jazz Age full of outlawed booze, rich young upstarts and massive steel bridges stretching into the distance.
Into the fray strolls Nick Carraway, a straight-laced fellow with all the untainted innocence of Tobey Maguire. Renting a cottage in the nouveau riche quarter, he’s invited to a party thrown by his elusive, opulent neighbour, Gatsby (DiCaprio). At the same time, he’s busy fraternising with his second cousin, Daisy (Mulligan), the wealthy wife of unfaithful hubby Tom (Edgerton).
They all certainly look the part. DiCaprio nails the practised charm of the youthful celebrity, Mulligan is gorgeously tortured as the possibly imperfect object of his desire and Edgerton makes for a horribly careless upper-class twonk. They blend in perfectly with their carnival universe; from the costume design to the lavish mansion sets, the entire movie is an orgastic explosion of champagne, colour and confetti; a frenzy of opulence that throws you about like a rollercoaster in a Liberace theme park.
It’s not Fitzgerald but it is pure Baz, right down to the awkward and jarring use of period covers of modern songs. The question is whether the two should ever have been put together. His version of The Great Gatsby is all garish subject and no poetic prose. It sparks to life when the cast are thrown together in one heated hotel scene, or when the camera dotes on Daisy’s green light – a symbol that cuts through the speakers with a panged echo every time it’s on screen. But it splutters when putting Fitzgerald’s words (at times literally) on the screen. Here, we actually see Gatsby leaning towards the green light, an unsubtle approach summed up by Nick Carraway’s narration. Maguire is perfectly cast, even if you do expect him to announce that he’s Spider-Man at the end of every voiceover, but he becomes an intrusive plot device, over-emphasised by a bizarrely invented prologue, which never quite conveys the scathing beauty of the text, which let its hazy figures of hope dissipate into an ashen sham.
Luhrmann, you suspect, is more in love with the world created by Gatsby than what’s underneath. It’s surface rather than substance. But what surface! One stunning sequence sees New York erupt with fireworks while Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue catapults over the top – a cinematic celebration of the Hollywoodised ideal of Manhattan. The sped-up activity and careening cameras produce a strange visual experience that leaves everything looking more like tiny plastic figures than real life. Is it an intentional layer of artifice crafted by a master of artificiality? Whether knowing or no, Baz Luhrmann’s superficial adaptation of the novel arguably ends up being too faithful to Gatsby’s legacy. A tale of a flawless, ultimately empty spectacle turned into a flawless, ultimately empty spectacle, it rushes past with the gaudy polish of an American’s dream. Then leaves you sitting there picking it apart piece by piece.
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