Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to transform F Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal 1925 American novel into a crowd-pleasing spectacle film is admirable if not always successful. It is an unnecessarily faithful adaptation that puts on screen Fitzgerald’s critique of American society in the 1920s expressed though the misadventures of wide-eyed bonds salesman and failed writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and his larger-than-life neighbour Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose famed extravagance only exists in order for him to win back a former love – or at least the ideal of that former love – Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).
The production and costume design by Luhrmann’s long-term creative partner Catherine Martin are astonishing, not just reproducing period detail, but evoking the film’s themes and character detail. Gatsby’s house bursts with energy and yet is cavernous and empty, while the bleak industrial wasteland between West Egg and New York creates a brutal contrast between the working class and the partygoers, as well as revealing the bleak reality of what lies between the comforts of home and the glamour of the big city. The costumes are attractive and detailed; yet contain important character details from Nick’s awkward bowties and tightly fitted suits suggesting his perpetual status as an uncomfortable outsider, to a terrific scene where Gatsby must declare his emotions and his soaking wet white suit leaves him looking transparent. Later Gatsby attempts to impress Daisy by throwing his collection of expensive shirts down upon her, literally overwhelming her with not just his material possessions, but the material possession designed to most literally conceal his class, background and insecurities.
The use of CGI technology wonderfully complements Martin’s design to create the space of the film, and in turn to visually represent many of the themes in the film (and novel). Wild zooms across the bay between the Gatsby’s home and the Buchanans’s home emphasises the gulf between new money and old money, as well as how close yet how far Gatsby is to the ideal of Daisy. Using the 3D to depict Gatsby’s hand reach out into the depths of the screen towards the green light across the water is one of the moments where Luhrmann’s lack of subtlety works. A similar moment is Gatsby’s grand entrance with its rushing zoom into his face while fireworks explode in the background. It is contrived and bordering on self-parody, introducing the extent that the myth of Gatsby is a construct fashioned out of cheap thrills.
Where The Great Gatsby is most let down is its approach to the extravagant party scenes during the first half of the film. The hedonistic world of drinking, wealth and general excess is all on screen in Martin’s design, but the constant moving camera and rapid editing prevent the eye from ever fully soaking in the spectacle. Any sense of excitement that builds during many of these important sequences is frustratingly kept simmering just below the surface due to the film’s refusal to ever let a moment play out in any tangible way.
However, it is tempting to ponder if the scenes of anti-spectacle are deliberate attempts to mimic Nick’s bewilderment and over stimulus while also keeping the audience at arms length to suggest the hollowness and lack of substance behind the American dream at its most decadent and insincere. This would be the most forgiving conclusion and it does fit in with the themes of the film and novel, however, it is difficult to ignore that the same problems afflicted Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! Furthermore, it is possible to deliver engaging visual cinema that does not become what it is commenting on, as demonstrated in the film adaption of The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) where the film remained thrilling without becoming the violent spectacle that it critiqued.
Curiously a lot of the problems with the spectacle scenes in The Great Gatsby are the constant intrusion of story information when the narrative should have been taking a backseat. This adaption remains remarkably close to the novel in terms of key plot points, which is not necessarily a good thing as condensing, altering and omitting aspects of a novel are important steps in novel to film adaption. This must be done not just to transpose literary storytelling techniques into visual storytelling techniques, but for the practical factor that adaptations too close to the source material run the risk of becoming overly long, as is the case here.
It does not help that the film introduces the concept that Nick’s first person narration is the result of him first speaking to a sanatorium doctor (played by Jack Thompson) and then writing down his memories and recollections. Not only does this lose the immediacy of the story by presenting it all as a flashback, but it draws out the film’s running time with unnecessary over-explanation. It seems as if this was done to make the film as broadly accessible as possible. However, the presence of a narrator in a film does not need to be justified and there are too many times where the narration spells out aspects of character that were already ascertained visually by the excellent performances by the cast.
The second part of the film, where the narrative becomes more melancholic and reflective, is comparatively more subdued stylistically. The colour palette becomes darker, the camera movement settles down and the shots are less busy. Luhrmann’s love of melodrama seeps into the second half of the film, achieving moments of pathos that audiences have not seen from him since Romeo + Juliet (1996). In this regard The Great Gatsby works better than Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) where the film’s bold theatrical style felt increasingly inappropriate as the story developed into its far more interior and tragic terrain.
Annoyingly The Great Gatsby seems determined to continually undermine audience good will. All the themes from the novel concerning the decline of the American dream, social hypocrisy and class divisions are present in the film and very blatantly expressed through Gatsby’s foolish and tragic pursuit of Daisy’s affections. Luhrmann’s bold and unsubtle approach to film style ensures that these themes are on the surface and as widely digestible as possible. Yet sometimes that blatant thematic signposting does become overwhelming, such as the excessive cuts back to the Doctor TJ Eckleburg billboard, which features giant eyes in glasses to remind us that everything is under scrutiny. And while The Great Gatsby is never as bad as a film like Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012) in terms of simplistic song placements that literally describe what is happing on screen, the scene where ‘Love is the Drug’ is used to accompany a pill-taking scene is distracting and clumsy, especially considering how well other pieces of music are used.
As with Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann adopts a mostly anachronistic approach to the film’s score, using contemporary songs to complement the images on screen. While the contemporary music for Moulin Rouge! was adapted to evoke the film’s time period, the music in The Great Gatsby is used in a way more akin to the way Sophia Coppola used music in Marie Antoinette (2006). It is there to give contemporary audiences the sensation of listening to music from the time period, rather than faithfully replicating the period music, which arguably would not have the same effect on viewers today. So in the case of The Great Gatsby, instead of hearing the provocative and rebellious music of the time – jazz – Luhrmann delivers a soundtrack with a heavy hiphop component. It is debateable if such a technique is necessary; in The Aviator (2004) and the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire (2010 – ongoing) Martin Scorsese very successfully conveys the wild and raucous parties of the 1920s using period music. Nevertheless, it is a stylistic device that Luhrmann has adopted, like Coppola did and like the writers of the television series Deadwood (2004-2006) did when they chose to use modern profanity in the dialogue. And in the case of The Great Gatsby it almost always works, giving a much-needed pulse to the larger party scenes and adding to the layers of melodramatic romance in other key scenes.
Like Marie Antoinette shots of empty rooms filled with debris announce that the party is over. Both are films about insular people thrust into a world of excess that has removed them from reality. Both Gatsby and Marie suffer for love and both are scapegoats for the indulgences of others. And both films are mixed packages directed by bold and stylistic filmmakers whose successes still deserve to outshine their lesser works. The Great Gatsby is so close to being a great film, let down by its own refusal to exist in the moment, either reminding the audience it is told as a flashback or moving too quickly onto something else as if a few moments into the future is always far more important than the present. And like Marie Antoinette time will hopefully be kind to The Great Gatsby, as the disappointment of initial expectation fades and re-evaluations start to emerge, suggesting that perhaps Luhrmann’s plan all along was to make something as unobtainable as Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, and as transparent as the American Dream when depicted as a soaking wet white suit, covering the shivering body of a self-deluding, morally compromised man.