Thursday 23 May 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013) - Baz Luhrmann

One of the most remarkable aspects of Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby is its prescience. With its focus on wealth and excess, it foreshadowed the Great Depression of the 1930s – themes that resonate with today’s economic climate, idolising of narcissistic wealth and celebrity-obsessed culture. It’s perhaps due to these parallels that Luhrmann has decided now is the time for a big screen adaptation of the novel.

The Great Gatsby bares all the hallmarks of a Luhrmann film. Sweeping camera shots fly over cityscapes with dizzying effect; each frame is filled with a carnival of colour; much of the plot is narrated through monologue voiceover; and the script is filled with over the top humour.

To an extent, Luhrmann’s style is well-suited to the opulence of 1920s glamour. The sets drip with elegant art deco geometry as they lead us into the hedonistic world of the enigmatic Gatsby and his illustrious “parties”. Gatsby’s manor is as much a playground for the rich and famous as it is a playground for Luhrmann’s creativity. The film is almost sickeningly ostentatious and extravagant, even elongating its cast in that typical rendition of 1920s beauty. Yet it’s a visual wonder that’s ruined by 3D – not only is the minimal effect unnecessary, but the vibrancy of the film is utterly dulled by the dark glasses.

At first, the use of modern music for the score (from Jay-Z) is jarring but it soon settles into a groove. The use of artists like Lana Del Rey embody the retro-modernism of the film itself. Moreover, the soundtrack highlights the parallels between the two eras. We could just as easily be watching the same story set in our own times – Fitzgerald’s plot surely transcends the decades.

The film is carried by Di Caprio’s performance as Gatsby: charming and brooding in equal measure. However, he lacks chemistry with the breathless, lifeless Mulligan as Daisy. Maguire, meanwhile, is blank – merely a conduit for the audience’s emotions.

Paradoxically, Luhrmann’s visuals are the highlight but also the downfall of the film. They might be deliciously decadent, but everything is hyperbolic and cartoonish. The central love story becomes melodramatic to the point of overblown opera, the performances are hollow, and some cuts are unintentionally laughable. Ironically enough, the extravagance cheapens the film. Where the novel replicates a modernist reality, Luhrmann’s film descends into the fantastical and the ridiculous. The film mostly concerns shallow rich folk throwing lavish parties – like a glossier, extended episode of Made in Chelsea.

Yet perhaps this is the point? The film is a comment against materialism and superficiality, a slave to the idiom ‘money can’t buy you happiness’. To that end, the film loses its lustre towards the end as we hit the emotional heart. The tragic denouement leaves the audience on a downbeat note, lacking the sparkle of the opening. Most tragic of all is that Luhrmann’s latest is a sad case of style over substance, old sport.


Watch: The Great Gatsby is in cinemas now.