Laura Morgan is in two minds about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
I have always liked Baz Luhrmann and his big, shiny, stupid films. I like the gauche, comic-book way he puts shots together, and I like how frenetic and noisy his movies are, and how awkwardly beautiful he makes people look. But he seemed an odd choice for a new adaptation of Gatsby, as did making it in 3D: why would you choose the most superficial of directors and the most superficial of mediums – I use the word descriptively, not pejoratively – to tell a story which is all about what’s hidden beneath the surface?
The trailer heightened my anxiety: it just didn’t look like a film I wanted to watch. But in the service of MostlyFilm I nobly overcame my misgivings and ventured out to a first-night screening, and I am pleased to be able to tell you that it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.
It’s quite bad, and as an adaptation of the novel it’s a disaster. Luhrmann handles the subtleties of the source material by largely ignoring them, and what started out as a social novel about the very rich becomes a gaudy, garish fantasy about love. But taken on its own terms, there’s enough here to enjoy. The music is great, and lifts the party scenes dazzlingly, though it veers towards the mawkish in the film’s more sentimental moments. There are also some terrific casting choices, none more so than Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, for which character he is so perfect that I don’t think he should ever play anyone else. Isla Fisher is fabulous as Myrtle and Elizabeth Debicki a mesmerising Jordan Baker. Carey Mulligan as Daisy looks too fresh-faced next to the rest of the cast, but she and DiCaprio pull off a convincing chemistry, and she spends most of the film dressed as a flower fairy and looks good enough to eat.
(Of course, the whole film looks good enough to eat, because that’s what Baz Luhrmann does best. In his retelling the Gatsby and Buchanan mansions become impossible fairytale castles; Manhattan an amusement park; the rest of Long Island a scene from Dante. The moon doesn’t quite develop a human face and sing opera, but it’s a near-run thing.)
Tobey Maguire does what he can as Nick, but the problem with Nick is that he’s not really a part of the story; something Lurhmann has tried to get around by having him narrate it as a series of flashbacks. It sort of works, but it’s an inelegant solution. A classy film-maker shouldn’t need to convey part of a story by filming someone sitting in a chair, telling the story. The present-day scenes are pointless filler, and at 142 minutes what this film doesn’t need is filler. Even its prettiness didn’t stop my mind from wandering in places, and if you can’t adapt a novel of under 50,000 words in below two hours and you STILL leave out important scenes (Gatsby’s father gets about a second of screen time, and no dialogue), you are doing something wrong. I also found myself bristling at the technique of having words appear on the screen as Nick says them. If I wanted to read the book, I’d read the book. (I would rather read the book.)
I don’t want to put you off completely: as a frothy, stylised piece of fluff this has plenty going for it. If you like Moulin Rouge! you will probably like this (this is not the faint praise it sounds; I loved Moulin Rouge!). But if you love The Great Gatsby, the best approach might be to come to this movie assuming that it has nothing to do with the book from which it takes its name and cast of characters. It’s not a literary adaptation, it’s a Baz Luhrmann film, and if you go into it in that spirit, you might just find you enjoy yourself.
The last word goes to Bret Easton Ellis, author of that other great American novel about the hedonistic, horrifying outer reaches of lives spent living the American dream:
That may be sweepingly churlish and dismissive and missing a “the”, but it’s also probably about right.