Luhrmann and DiCaprio’s “Gatsby” may be all wrong in some ways, but it still works
The first thing to say is that I went to this movie expecting to hate it, but watched quite involved and went away moved. The two-hours-plus went by smoothly. This version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous short novel, as it has been adapted by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, moves along at a brisk pace, it draws you in, and even the somewhat unnecessary framing device of the alcoholic Nick Carroway (Tobey McGuire) writing the whole story in a sanatorium works. You need to know that while Luhrmann’s effort, one of at least five screen or TV versions, is still dismissed by the critics as showing the book just can’t really be adapted, many have acknowledged that this is the best job yet. There are several reasons for that, besides the effective storytelling: strong emotions, vivid scenes, and a passionate intensity that, even when it’s misguided, still sweeps you away. And there’s Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, as vivid, glamorous, and touching a figure as you could imagine, even if he’s not quite right. He grabs you from his first shot, wrinkling his brow like Orson Welles at his oiliest and most charming, smiling a come-on smile and delivering a 100-carat flash of his eyes, with lovely wavy blond hair and a glossy tan Welles never had. DiCaprio as Gatsby is a sight you just don’t want to miss. It may not be as juicy an acting role as the silver tongued monster he played in Django, but it’s iconic.
As a literary interpretation this isn’t right, because it’s all too present, and it’s the essence of the book that Gatsby is remote and mysterious. Luhrmann inevitably overdoes the physicality. He even made the movie in 3D, God knows why, so all the excessive furniture and sparklers and waterfalls and pirouetting butlers and jostling crowds and flapper dancers on platforms of the party scenes are even more in-your-face. Besides, DiCaprio’s excellent Gatsby is too touching and vulnerable, too authentic a person. The important thing about Gatsby is that he is a gangster, if one with a lovely facade. As done here this story might remind film buffs of Citizen Kane — in this version Gatsby’s mansion is a big turreted castle, like Hearst’s San Simeon.
Luhrmann seems aptly named if you think of the luridness of much of his work, the whirly-swirly Strictly Ballroom, the nausea-inducing Moulin Rouge!,the flat-out crazy Romeo + Juliet — when he and DiCaprio first got together. That was the wild, wiry, young DiCaprio who loved to shock. He’s obviously bigger and solider now and also very toned down, sometimes capable of pomposity, as in J. Edgar. But he draws on more of the mix of glamour and lunacy of his Howard Hughes here. As for Luhrmann, he toned himself down more recently too, for his unappreciated epic Australia.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby is tacky and overblown, and it almost self-destructs in the early scenes, the absurdly intense chock-full parties at Gatsby’s mansion that are so hyperactive and excessive you really can’t even see anything: they just become noise, compounded by the odd, wistfully adventurous mixture of Twenties tunes and hip-hop, as if the director thought he was doing something as revolutionary as his Romeo + Juliet, which you could forgive up to a point because of its sheer kookiness. He is really not playing so free with Fitzgerald as he was with Shakespeare and if he thinks he is he should think again. After the opening party sequences, though the giant Twenties cars racing around with Gatsby or Buchanan at the wheel are over-the-top, and the way many scenes are shot the people look pasted onto a background, caused by the 3D I suppose, there really are a lot of scenes of dialogue, and we may spend more time looking at DiCaprio’s suits than at the excessive sets. Naturally, in the scene where Gatsby shows off a stack of custom made shirts to Nick, Luhrmann has him throw piles of clothes pell-mell down from a balcony onto a huge bed. But it’s still the same scene.
Maybe the only really memorable set is the industrial Queens roadside “valley of ashes” landscape with the big looming, haunting blue eyeglasses billboard and the petrol station where Buchanan’s mistress resides. As Daisy’s rich, well-born husband Tom Buchanan, Joel Edgerton is extremely repulsive at first with his horrible moustache, but that’s okay, except that he doesn’t seem aristocratic at all (as Bruce Dern did in the Redford version). But he’s a very strong actor, and we forget the mistakes in his important scenes. That’s what you can say about most of Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby. There are things wrong with a lot of the scenes and some of the casting, but it still all works, not enough to make a great movie but enough to make a compelling one. I’m not sure why this has gotten such a raw deal from the American critics, but I guess I do. David Denby’s New Yorker review makes it clear: Fitzgerald’s novel is an American classic, and he thinks this is tasteless and crude. But after watching the movie I must side more with A.O. Scott of the NY Times, who said the novel is a little overrated, and the movie is a success. The truth, as so often, is somewhere in between. But if you’ve waded through some of the limp, disappointing screen adaptations of Gatsby like the 1974 Robert Redford one, you owe yourself the opportunity to watch one with some juice.
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was the opening night film at Cannes out of competition and hits UK cinemas 16th May.
DIRECTOR: BAZ LUHRMANN
WRITERS: BAZ LUHRMANN, CRAIG PEARCE
STARS: LEONARDO DICAPRIO, TOBEY MCGUIRE, CAREY MULLIGAN, JOEL EDGERTON, JASON CLARKE, ISLA FISHER, JACK THOMPSON, ELIZABETH DEBICKI, AMINTABH BACHCHAN
RUNTIME: 142 MIN
COUNTRY: AUSTRALIA, USA