Film review: THE GREAT GATSBY, from Built For Speed

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby captured America amid the hedonism and chaos of the “jazz age” a time when the nation was giddy with power from its First World War economic boom. The book focused on an American upper class of wealthy white folks who, in addition to their sedate garden parties and boating regattas, regularly gathered for all-night illegal booze-fests.   At its centre was the mysterious, mercurial and extremely rich Jay Gatsby, a man who most people knew only through rumours that cast him as a war hero, bootlegger, murderer and even cousin to Kaiser Wilhelm.  Like Charles Foster Kane he was a man whose material wealth disguised emotional emptiness as he pined for former love Daisy who now resided across Long Island Sound with her boorish husband Tom Buchanan.  Our entrée into Gatsby’s world was through writer Nick Caraway, Daisy’s cousin and Gatsby’s neighbour on Long Island’s West Egg.  Caraway, who some have suggested represented Fitzgerald himself, was an innocent whose fascination with Gatsby saw him drawn into the dangerous world that lay hidden beneath the glitter of Gatsby’s wild epic parties.

Similarly, many filmmakers have been lured to Gatsby’s world of extravagant and corrupt capitalism with probably the best known cinematic version being Jack Clayton’s 1974 movie starring Robert Redford.  Now, Australian director Baz Luhrmann has bravely taken on this monument of American literature.  With his love of surface gloss and music-driven decadence, it’s understandable that director Baz was drawn like a moth to Gatsby’s flame.  Given Lurhmann’s body of work, it’s also understandable that many were fretting about how he would treat the material; would he do justice to the text or simply indulge the hedonistic aspects of the story and fail to explore the darkness surrounding the flame.  The film’s first act seems to justify all the detractors’ fears but audiences shouldn’t write the film off too soon.

The first 40 minutes of Gatsby have everything that’s wrong with Baz Luhrmann films: embarrassingly unsubtle direction, cornball acting with familiar Aussie faces popping up in ridiculous minor roles, mash-ups of oddly anachronistic songs featuring the likes of Jay Z and Lana Del Ray and a frenzied visual style so full of swooping aerial shots and choppy editing that it induces motion sickness.  The film becomes a manic blur where characters and major plot points are barely discernible and where the film’s hyper-drive energy and overwhelming art direction threaten to trample the audience.  Luhrmann also assaults and insults the audience with thuddingly obvious visual representations of events overlayed with narration that describes these thuddingly obvious images.  At various times he even has Caraway’s words scrawled across the screen as hammers away at his typewriter. While it’s never as silly or cringe worthy as Australia or Moulin Rouge, the early part of Gatsby will have those who dislike Lurhmann’s lurid cinematic fever dreams baying for blood.

Fortunately, with the appearance of Leo Di Caprio as the eponymous Gatsby, Luhrmann pulls the reins on the visual mania and switches to a more conventional and satisfying dramatic style.  It’s pure conjecture but maybe megastar Leo didn’t want his performance swept up and obliterated by Lurhmann’s technicolour tornado and encouraged the director to hold the camera steady and focus on the performances.

Leo’s Gatsby is a potent mix of surface calm and latent angst, a suave and glamorous figure tortured by his shady past and romantic longing for Daisy.  Leo seems ideal for the role as he’s played the tragic, enigmatic loner so well in previous films such as Catch Me if You Can and The Aviator. He’s certainly more convincing than Redford who, in 1974, seemed strangely uncomfortable in the role.

As Daisy Buchanan, Carey Mulligan is, like the character in the novel, both alluring and flaky but not so fascinating as to justify Gatsby’s obsession with her. Mulligan’s performance is fine but it would have been refreshing to see Daisy portrayed as a more emotionally complex person.

As Nick Caraway Tobey McGuire exudes his usual endearing goofball charm but this pivotal character, who is effectively our ambassador in Gatsby’s world, needed someone with greater emotional depth.

Continuing his Hollywood ascent Joel Edgerton plays Tom Buchanan and at first he threatens to deliver one of those hideously hammy performances that litter Lurhmann’s films.  With his pencil thin moustache, boot-blacked hair and permanent scowl he looks as if he’s attempting a campy Clark Gable impersonation.  Fortunately, once the film establishes its equilibrium, Edgerton’s performance becomes more believable and forceful.

Isla Fisher, however, is outrageously over the top as Buchanan’s long-suffering mistress Myrtle Wilson.  Her Noo Yawk accent is so exaggerated she sounds like Bugs Bunny. It’s a thankless role for Fisher who is shunted aside for much of the film and seemingly treated with as much disdain by the scriptwriters as Myrtle is by Tom Buchanan.

This film is drenched in Luhrmann’s aesthetic sensibility or lack thereof depending on your opinion.  Although nearly every scene is art-directed to within an inch of its life, there are some genuinely impressive visuals, particularly Gatsby’s vast palatial home with its stunning art-deco interiors.  The vistas of 1920’s New York, however, which have been conjured almost entirely through CGI are jarringly cartoonish.

At times the films mix of narration, frenzied montages and tracking shots recalls Scorsese’s Goodfellas.  This only serves, however, to make us think longingly of what a Scorsese adaptation of Gatsby might have been like.

This is certainly not the definitive Gatsby, Luhrmann never does justice to Fitzgerald’s potent themes of destructive materialism and American spiritual emptiness let alone the subtle wit of his prose but how many films capture the breadth and depth of classic novels?  Luhrmann wants to make Gatsby a romantic tragedy and in his slightly loopy way he succeeds. The film’s whirling energy may be nauseating at times but for the most part it’s preferable to the anaemic, languorous style of Jack Clayton’s 1974 Gatsby.


Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Baz Luhrmann.

Release date: 30th May 2013

Running time: 142 mins.


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