[23 August 2013]
It’s understood from the first frame of any Baz Luhrmann film that nothing is going to have much to do with the real world. That’s the whole point. You don’t go to one of the man’s films to be entranced by finely-etched characters or dry wit; you go or not based on your appetite for noisy sensory overkill. Spectacles like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge don’t tell stories so much as they smash elements together so that everyone can “ooh” and “aah” as the sparks glitter and fly. Anachronisms are no matter, as he flings straight-no-chaser Shakespeare into the sunny alleyways of Venice Beach and late-20th century pop-mashups into fin-de-siècle Paris. His signature style is film as fireworks display, a truism brought tediously to life in his newest work of crassly commercial culture-hacking, The Great Gatsby.
Luhrmann’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age fable is all about trying to make it seem as “modern” as possible; a story gambit that makes sense, given the current economic climate. Of course, the one percent’s current Gilded Age just kept on trucking after the Great Recession, unlike the excesses of the 1920s fantasized about so lovingly in Gatsby, which were put on ice by the Great Depression. To that end, Luhrmann comes to the story armed not with a respectable screenplay, great location scouts, and the best actors he could find but a war chest of whizbang computer graphics, some pretty faces, and executive music producer Jay-Z. It’s gonna be a show, kids!
This is a commercial intelligent move, sexing up the material so that all those teens and pre-teens who read the book in school and churned out essays about the symbolism of that Dr. T.J. Eckleburg billboard (the one with the eyeglasses) would still line up to see it. But in practice, Luhrmann’s vision is more pose than artistic angle, and one that afterward drains as painlessly out of your head as a similarly empty-headed Jerry Bruckheimer explosion-a-rama. Just imagine what Michael Bay would have done with one of Ernest Hemingway’s war stories and you have some idea of how off-key Luhrmann’s take is.
Given the right kind of artistic temperament, treating Fitzgerald’s novel with not kid gloves but a wrecking ball could have actually made for dazzling cinema. Too many filmmakers can tie themselves in knots trying to be completely faithful to the source material. But Luhrmann’s take on the novel is even more recklessly self-indulgent than that. It doesn’t help that Fitzgerald’s story is itself not the easiest to translate to the screen. That might be why the Elevator Repair Service company’s stage play Gatz was a cult hit last year; it was simply office workers taking turns reading the book word-by-word over some six hours. The story is in the telling, not the showing.
Gatsby is an outsider tale where little is at stake for the reader. Conveniently placed narrator Nick Carraway hovers around the action and watches while Jay Gatsby, symbol of the classically nouveau-riche self-made American man, throws parties he doesn’t enjoy or even attend while romancing his now-married old girlfriend Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s heedless manias and serial lies are bound for destruction, as is so much of the glittering world of Long Island parties and New York clubs that he drags “old sport” Nick around to. Everything is so preordained that there’s more enjoyment in appreciating Fitzgerald’s flinty lack of romanticism and finely-chiseled turns of phrase than the story itself.
With Luhrmann at the helm, though, there’s not much to appreciate except the plasticky computer-generated backdrops and glammed-up outfits. He seems to have spent so much time on the look that little effort was left over for the performers. It’s not a mistake he always made in the past; at least Romeo + Juliet had John Leguizamo’s guttersnipe snarl and Moulin Rouge Ewan McGregor’s winning love-sick romanticism. But Gatsby wastes nearly everybody who shows up.
As Carraway, Tobey Maguire gives little evidence that he was ever considered an actor, wandering around in an unvarying pop-eyed daze. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is similarly unplugged, coasting along in that glassy style that worked much better under Nicolas Winding Refn’s direction in Drive. Trying much harder are Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s oafish husband Tom and Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. Both of them uncover a rage inside their outwardly prepossessed men of stature, whose fine white suits can’t hide an inner darkness and discontent. Only Elizabeth Debicki, as Nick’s confidant, the tennis pro Jordan Baker, makes sense in her role. She’s all long angles and insouciant smirk, a magazine illustration-ready flapper girl who understands that she’s just there to have a good time and look great while wearing a long black dress and wielding a cigarette holder.
But everyone’s performances all just flailing against Luhrmann’s background noise, of which there is plenty. Scene after scene whips by as though the editor were trying to win some land-speed record, but the film never takes off. It isn’t just the lack of human connection – even Daisy and Gatsby’s illicit affair has all the spark of a rained-out campfire – but the numbing effect of all these parties and club scenes. Each of the bashes at Gatsby’s beachside mansion are staged by Luhrmann with the kind of decadent displays that Cecile B. DeMille used to shoot his pagan epics; this is to be expected. At the Manhattan clubs where the film takes every excuse to jump off to, the music is all horrendously mashed-up club songs with jazz beats scattered around. It’s all about the pose: Luhrmann’s camera is so in love with every swishing beaded dress and gleaming saxophone that everything else seems secondary. It seems there’s no moment that isn’t worth capturing in slow-motion.
But cranking everything up to 11 all the time keeps Luhrmann’s visual opulence from having any effect. Even Nick’s humble next-door cabin can’t be just that; Luhrmann has to layer on backgrounds of idealized foliage that make it look like something out of a Thomas Kincaid painting. This is kitsch at such a deep level it doesn’t even seem to be aware that it’s kitsch.