Top critical review
A distant green light (viewed from the gay bar).
on 20 June 2016
The last time I saw a film adaptation of this superb novel was back in the seventies (that one starring Robert Redford). It underwhelmed. Baz Luhrmann's version is a far more accomplished affair. This is chiefly down to the screenplay, which given the difficulty of condensing the story into two hours, has been done remarkably well here, I think.
Luhrmann chooses to focus on the core relationship between between Jay Gatsby ( Leonardo Di Caprio) and the narrator of the story, Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire). Gatsby's romance with Daisy, though central to the plot is strangely sort of secondary to this friendship. Nor is Carey Mulligan's Daisy as adequately drawn a character as either of the twin male roles. Not something I got from the novel, as I recall. There her character was subtle and interesting. But here she's a bit 2-D. It's definitely the men's friendship that Luhrmann seems more interested in. Not only Daisy, but her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) I found less compelling in this version. Joel Edgerton's Tom is rather heavy-handed, soapy and unconvincing as an aristocratic old money type.
I suppose this re-fitting of character by Luhrmann helps strip the story down for cinema pretty effectively. It also plays to the tonal shift he has envisaged too.
If you're interested, but yet to read the book, I'd recommend you do that first though, because Fitzgerald's aesthetic is pretty badly stepped on by Luhrmann's signature cinematic style. And that really matters. It's not for nothing that this has long been recognised as a top candidate for The Great American novel. The prose carries the gravitas of the themes with such grace and economy that the novel feels light as a feather. It's an effortless read. Fitzgerald's observations on the vitality but cultural vulgarity of Gatsby's world are all the more incisive for being so poised. There's nothing shallow or gimmicky about it.
Not so here. The director's take is all glitzy brio which seems hell-bent on re-envisaging the jazz age Twenties in terms the clubbing generation can connect with. Everything's stylistically OTT and retro-amped. From the synthetic colour palette, the campy set and costume design, to the funhouse stream of tricksy shots (endless accelerated zooming and overhead perspectives) the intention seems to be to suggest a hallucinated frenetic rush. Oversaturated, blatantly over-brushed CGI effects and a soundtrack of contemporary clubby music fused with a period pieces rendered by Brian Ferry's Orchestra. Film as Glam Art cooked to the follicles. Right for Gatsby though?
Sorry, but the new money vulgarity of the culture depicted on-screen might reflect an aspect of our own cultural moment but it just doesn't ring true to the classy modernity of Fitzgerald's masterpiece --nor the historical generation it so brilliantly nailed. A major shortcoming for me which I can't get past.
Of course, if you don't know the original novel, you won't care. And if your'e a hog for Baz Luhrmann's full-on style, then you should find this another solid bit of auteur gold from the Ozzy maestro. He certainly ticks all his boxes once again. Sound(ish) performances, technically polished and a smart underlying structure. Love it or loathe it, it's a solid, entertaining beast. I just question if he was best chosen to serve this particular vehicle. Is this big style thing he does the only way he can tackle any story?
I was curious about that when I picked this film up. Is Luhrmann's approach so narrowly defined that he has to find a project character intrinsically suited to it? His version of The Great Gatsby seems to confirm that it is.