Home > Film, Literature, Reviews > Film Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

Film Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby (2013; Directed by Baz Luhrmann)

Extravagantly-minded Australian film and stage director Baz Luhrmann has built a formidable (if divisive) career telling a certain sort of story a certain way. In his most critically notable and commercially successful films, the flickering-neon beach-noir William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and the frothy, manic Belle Époque musical whirlwind Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann constructs a showy, vivid tableau vivant of opulent dissolution and indulgent superficiality, the glittering, decadent excess of which he climactically brings crashing down like a shattering palace of glass with a theatrical dose of final-act melodramatic tragedy. The absurd heightened hyper-reality of his onscreen creations simultaneously magnifies and cheapens the narrative’s anticipated emotional impact; it’s an operatic effect, in both the figurative and the literal, intentional sense. It would not be outside the realm of possibility for Luhrmann to stage the spectacular crash of a multichromatic Mongolfier balloon into a mountain before cutting to a close-up of its star-crossed lovers in the basket, saying their heartrending final farewells. Indeed, this would constitute the definitive Baz Luhrmann moment, especially if it was accompanied by, say, a remix of a song by Phoenix.

When considered through the filter of his previous tendencies, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic novel The Great Gatsby seems purpose-built for Bazification, incongruous as the match of artist to source material may initially seem. The Great Gatsby is many things, but it is primarily a parable of what Rousseau (not unproblematically) erected as the fundamental dichotomy of modernity: the projection of the outer self in relation to the dimly-understood truth of the inner self.

Fitzgerald’s masterpiece crystallizes these competing ideas as an essential element of the modern American psyche, in particular in the quintessential New World individualist figure of the self-made man as represented by Jay Gatsby. Gatsby, the literary model of this social archetype, forges an ideal identity for himself that not only proceeds from wealth and privilege and the appearances of gentlemanliness, but is based entirely in the perceived value of those elements, subsuming the inner titular personal greatness of the man that only his close confidant and fictional biographer Nick Carraway witnesses. When tragedy makes its inevitable incursion and Gatsby’s immaculately-constructed “amusement park” (as Carraway calls Gatsby’s mansion) crumbles, the fall is all the greater for the lack of surviving substance behind the artifice.

The Great Gatsby should be juicy meat for Luhrmann to sink his teeth into, and both the sumptuous expressions of pride and the tense, uncomfortable fall that comes after it are imparted with bold strokes of broad drama. Carraway (a Tobey Maguire role if there ever was one) ventures into one setting of overwhelming lavishness after another as Luhrmann’s ambitious vision of Jazz Age New York City and Long Island is unveiled in the film’s early passages. Luhrmann’s camera sweeps over the steamy grey bustle of Manhattan where Carraway, a fledgling writer at Yale, tries his hand at bond trading, plunging from the pinnacle of a skyscraper down to our narrator at street level in one vertiginous moment (shot in native 3D, the picture uses the still-dubious technical trick more for depth of field than its does for such roller-coaster showcases). Later important urban rendezvous at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the electric splendour of Times Square and in a jovial speakeasy full of African-American performers are likewise swimming with furious detail.

When Nick travels across the bay from the West Egg cottage he rents to the old-money refuge of East Egg to visit his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband and his old college friend Tom (Joel Edgerton), a long, digitally-aided tracking shot pushes in on the neoclassical facade of their estate, with polo ponies prancing along the verdant lawns. Daisy’s first appearance sees her reclining on a sofa with a dreamy cascade of billowing white fabric bewitching Carraway. The first exorbitant party he attends at the magnificent castle of his neighbour Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), into whose glittering orbit and grand plans Carraway increasingly slips, sees the trademarked Luhrmann pomp and luxurious sheen placed on full, confident, playful display.

Vintage Roaring Twenties fashions choke the frame, golden booze sloshes in delicately-poised martini glasses, confetti falls in a steady stream, all set to a Luhrmannesque soundtrack of contemporary jazz stompers, reworked classical pieces, and pumping, anachronistic hip hop and indie pop selections from the likes of Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Ray, and Jay-Z (who also exec produces the film). At the orgiastic end of this revelry, Gatsby himself gets a delayed and slightly ludicrous reveal, the beaming, golden-locked DiCaprio toasting all and sundry in a tailored suit with bursting silver fireworks behind him. Goofy as the beat proves to be, it’s an appropriate association; is not Jay Gatsby, as a scion of the Roaring Twenties and indeed of fast-rising American capitalist dreams, a human firework, a flash of blinding light exploding above and astonishing all but twinkling and extinguishing before it reaches earth?

Wooo! I’m King of the World!!!

In between the city and the Eggs, Luhrmann paints the Valley of Ashes as a swart, sooty Purgatory between two American visions of Heaven (each with their own peculiar Hells), presided over by the spectacled eyes of an inscrutable deity stand-in known as Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (Fitzgerald’s prose is poetic, even mythic, but his symbolism is unsubtle enough for high-school English Lit class). Therein lies the struggling garage of George Wilson (Jason Clarke), whose wife Myrtle (Isla Fisher) is carrying on an affair with the brutish Tom, which Nick learns about on a trip to New York that ends in a debauched apartment party of boozy delusion. Tom may be a philanderer (and a white supremacist), but when Gatsby begins to circle Daisy, whom he fell in love with years before as a penniless army officer, the two Eggs are set to collide, with cracked shells to be expected all around.

The visual geography of Gatsby‘s setting is impressive and epic while also remaining scrupulously well-designed, organized and artificial. Known for his theatrical overlays to the cinematic format, Luhrmann constructs this whole elaborate, semi-historic landscape as his nearly-literal stage. His players are dwarfed by the surrounding decadence even as their dramas expand almost to bursting. DiCaprio takes on a second bloom of youth through the lens of Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan. Reunited with the director who made him a matinee idol Romeo in the mid-90s and portraying an iconic character defined by a warm core of hope, the years fall from an actor defined as of late by roles of perspiring, tortured, overemphasized intensity. When he is required to be tortured, as in Gatsby’s awkward, comic first re-meeting with Daisy in Carraway’s cottage filled with floral adornments or in a key later scene of revelation and confrontation in a room at the Plaza Hotel, DiCaprio plays it petulant, boyish, desperate to please, rather than defaulting to violent menace in the post-millenial Serious Actor template.

Mulligan is a desirable Daisy who doesn’t shy away from her character’s fundamental ephemerality. It’s easy to understand why this Daisy’s metaphorical manifestation is a green light across a stretch of water, flashing persistently but forever insubstantial and impossible to grasp. Edgerton plays the cad with a flourish, but sneaks in hints of pained emotion over his mistress’ fate (Fisher’s Myrtle has a broad comic swagger that one wishes was utilized more often). Elizabeth Debicki’s longeur and flapper-girl angularity make her a superb Jordan Baker physically, if not entirely in personality. Maguire, as implied, was formed out of whatever divine clay was at hand specifically to fill these sort of fresh-faced observer-narrator roles (though would not, say, James McAvoy been a fascinating substition, I wonder). There’s one deeply bizarre casting choice that could have caused more unproductive friction, but despite multiple dialogue mentions, Bollywood patriarch Amitabh Bachchan only has one brief appearance as suave gangster and Gatsby associate Meyer Wolfsheim. Based on notorious Jewish-American gambler Arnold Rothstein, a suspected principal in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, one might unreasonably wish that Michael Stuhlbarg’s compelling, refined version of the man from Boardwalk Empire could have been imported wholesale into the film, but it’s a middling point.

It’s a less middling point, mind you, to ask if Luhrmann’s favoured approach of spectacular elaboration and artifice proceed from being theoretically apt to depict Gatsby‘s narrative to actually achieving the difficult task of thematic translation from book to screen. Despite strenuous effort, visionary design, and the best of intentions, this is not a very great Gatsby on this deeper level. The pat framing device of having Carraway set down his account of the Gatsby affair as a form of therapy at a New England sanitorium (very, very far from canonical) doesn’t help, certainly. And the elaboration and artifice often really is too much; many viewers will agree with Tom Buchanan’s dismissive assessment of one of Gatsby’s parties as little more than “a circus”.

But for all of the opportunities it presents for the species of sweeping decadence that has become Luhrmann’s signature, The Great Gatsby proves to be less resilient to an excess of expression than even the Shakespearean tragedy the director once tackled. Baz Luhrmann cannot help but overdo everything in his movies. This tendency towards superfluity is often his greatest strength, but it lets him down when it counts here. His magnification of this defining American literary myth does not nudge it towards cinematic transcendence. Instead, it rushes this Gatsby into undermining and cheapening its own thematic impact. The curious affect of Fitzgerald’s book is that as grand and mythic and all-encompassing as it can be (and as its reputation paints it as being), it is also surprisingly intimate and personal, an inquiry on the nature of not just the society but of the self. Lurhmann’s film does not recognize that intimacy, or does not possess the facility of embodying it. Its overwhelming abundance becomes redundant before it can be properly thrown down by its tragic dimensions. There is a balance to The Great Gatsby, and it proves entirely too delicate for this particular filmmaker, in the end.

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Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

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