Luhrmann throws everything at the screen, but misses out the core story
Even as Nick Carraway gazes into the swimming pool of millionaire Jay Gatsby’s mansion, under the night stars and wistfully implies “You can’t repeat the past”, our titular character insists “You can.. of course you can”. Very much like his response, director Baz Luhrmann uses the kaleidoscopic carnival of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 timeless novel of the same name, to showcase the very best and problematic of what he can, and has achieved before.
During the boom time of 1920’s New York, writer Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) recounts the time he befriends the party throwing, super rich, yet mysterious Mr Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). But as his cousin Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan), weighted down by an unloved marriage, learns of Mr Gatsby’s lavish social life, so begins a secret past between the two that starts to unravel and effect the relationships of all involved.
With all the enchanted objects in possession and parties to make even the biggest New Year bash seem like a sit down, Luhrmann perfectly captures that essence of overflowing booze and golden streamers that broadens the sense of lavishness. It comes as no surprise when you look at his previous films that he likes to throw everything at the screen, even the frame seems too compact to contain the level of glamour on offer. That said, this attention to detail should play second billing to a story that mirrors between the relationships of our characters and the changing times in which they play out Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
For fans of the novel, it pains to see such great passages and moments, not so much ‘missing’ but merely ‘skipped through’ to get to the next fireworks and glamour. While the pages evoke the times, it also dives into the depths of character tension and lost loyalty, something sadly missing. To be fair, in terms of being faithful to the text, it’s a very true adaptation and Baz Luhrmann uses all of his running time to cram all he can in. But when you get the feeling the director wants to show off his set pieces and use of zeitgeisty soundtracks, from a fairly small sized novel, it diminishes to some extent the very detail of the source material it comes from.
As with all of Luhrmann’s work though, when he gets it right, does he indeed get it right. There are those moments of built up tension but it doesn’t really come to anything perilous in the longer run. You have characters hiding secrets, being disloyal and unfaithful to their loved ones, and yet there isn’t any of that real dark frustration that Nick’s eyes see in the book. As Luhrmann’s version of Romeo & Juliet worked brilliantly by having an old story plonked into a modern setting, he carries on that theme of modernism of having up to date soundtracks enhancing the party lifestyle. Whilst his previous films since just about got away with it, similar efforts here somehow doesn’t work, and unfortunately takes you out the film, without the aid of the music transporting you back to the 1920’s.
In terms of playing the man himself, DiCaprio gives a very nailed down depiction of a man’s world spiraling out of control. He is the sharp guy in the suit as we meet him but even more cleverly becomes the Gatsby whose unable to keep a lid on things, becoming an eccentric, worrying, shake of a man. DiCaprio is able to switch between the charm and the crazed effortlessly, the latter almost harking back to the transformation and chaotic mindset his Howard Hughes’ character in Scorsese’s The Aviator or his Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island does. Whilst you have Carey Mulligan playing Daisy not so much as American royalty but with more fragility, fast becoming an actress with that long lost star quality that Hollywood sometimes lacks in it’s area of adapted period dramas.
She carries off her Daisy as the free woman whilst being caught in the middle of a tense love triangle, perfectly showing her ambiance and quality. It’s strange therefore to think as Maguire’s Nick Carraway is the central character, he is our narrator and story teller, that he’s not so much the weak link but almost becomes a redundant character. He’s observing the spinning world around him that when you focus on his character, he almost resembles the opposite of the lifestyle everyone else has.
So what you’re left with is an adhered, elaborate, all expenses paid trip to rich lifestyles in abundance, but ultimately cold feeling. All the good aspects and bad aspects at the very preconceived thought of Baz Luhrmann adapting Gatsby had all been delivered. Yes, the man can create razzmatazz, create moments of greatness and make you feel Beyonce and Jay-Z are DJ-ing in the next room, which undoubtedly fits perfect to the speakeasies settings and golden Jazz age feel. But his creative aspect of story and narrative doesn’t come close to paying off the quality the novel achieves, which hardened fans will evidently see lacking.
Begging the question of whether he should have ultimately been the man to direct will leave you pondering, but it has a vibrancy and energy that no other director can bring. It’s hard, it’s hard for any one director to nail down, fans may find it hard to be convinced, but at least Luhrmann has showcased a whirlwind adaptation that’ll have a new audience exploring Fitzgerald’s book.