Most films are, more or less, a play. Even a Memento or a Pulp Fiction still tells a story in an established narrative form. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t tend to do that. His films are more like revues. A bunch of beautiful things happen on the screen and as long as you allow yourself to be swept along with his somewhat overseasoned style the effect is wonderful.
Luhrmann’s style worked for Romeo & Juliet because there are exactly 9 adults in the Western World that don’t already know the story. It worked for Moulin Rouge because the plot of that film, such as it is, could have been jotted down on the back of a Bazooka Joe comic. The Great Gatsby might be quite a slim novel, but it’s one packed with ideas.
You can see why, on a cursory reading, Luhrmann might have been drawn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of romantic obsession set in one long febrile summer before the Wall Street Crash.
Where Baz excels is in visual set pieces. And the wild parties that are Gatsby’s calling card are, sure enough, lavishly presented. The 3D enhances proceedings, making his ravishing tableaux even more pleasing to the eye.
And the 3D post-processing of original Jazz Age newsreels is just marvellous. I could have stood a lot more of that.
But about half-way through proceedings Baz realises that he hasn’t actually filmed the novel yet and in a panic throws a lot of words on the screen. I mean literally. In the second half of the film Toby Maguire reads us big chunks of Fitzgerald’s literary classic while artfully animated words dance past our eyes in glorious 3D.
Luhrmann is a peerless visual stylist. But he isn’t a storyteller.
The much-hyped Jay-Z soundtrack is disappointingly muted too., I was quite excited about the idea of hearing raw hip hop in the era of hot jazz. In fact the film rather loses its nerve in that regard. Most of the soundtrack is luscious but generic underscore. The musical element is much more restrained that you might imagine.
There’s lots to like, don’t get me wrong. Elizabeth Debicki, in her first big movie role, is assured, charismatic and utterly lovely to look at. The screen seems dimmer when she disappears during the film’s middle third. Leonardo Di Caprio is inspired casting as Gatsby, and comes close to rescuing the film. Even though he is required to say “old sport” (45 occurrences in the book) something like 4,500 times. We never quite understand the roots of Gatsby’s all-consuming obsession with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), but that’s love for you.
Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway is the weak link. As our narrator and guide to the hidden depths of this giddy world he just isn’t right. He wanders through the film with that signature perplexed expression of his, like Professor Brian Cox had just told him something rather abstruse about pulsars, and he’s having trouble figuring it out.
I think if you know the book really well, you might enjoy the spectacle of the first half of the film. But the second half, where the wild whirl of tipsy parties gives way to the darkness beneath, adds nothing. I wish Baz had just done what he does best, and given us one long wild booze-crazed hoochie coochie party underpinned by fat Shawn Carter beats.
Because he doesn’t, this isn’t really one for Luhrmann fans or, I think Fitzgerald lovers.
I wanted to like this. A lot. But I couldn’t. Maybe you will. I’m waiting for the next one.