Mark Metcalf
“The Great Gatsby”

The Luhrmann Razzle-Dazzle

Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" delivers big stars and cinematic flash, but misses F. Scott Fitzgerald's elegance and depth of feeling.

By - May 14th, 2013 04:00 am
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The Roaring Twenties come alive again in Baz Luhrmann’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. All photos courtesy Village Roadshow Pictures

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose in The Great Gatsby comes off the page effortlessly and enters the consciousness like the scent of a $1,000 an ounce perfume. Or it’s like meringue, so light and full of air, yet rich, memorable and always desirable. Images from it linger from generation to generation and have become part of the universal consciousness. But to make a film of it is quite a challenge. Many will regard Baz Luhrmann’s new Gatsby as a failure before they have even given it a chance.

Luhrmann never directs with a light hand. He is all flash and style. He blows so much cinematic gusto into the simplest statement that he doesn’t need 3D to make it come right off the screen. Moulin Rouge danced so fast from the opening frame that people were exhausted by the second reel. Australia was so spectacularly beautiful frame after frame that people barely noticed the heavy-handed homage to The Wizard of Oz and innumerable American westerns from the fifties that might have had Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. He often buries stories and the themes beneath layer upon layer of music, editing and cinematography and thus makes story secondary. That’s risky when the subject is perhaps the best known novel of one of America’s most elegant of novelists.

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Luhrmann has turned The Great Gatsby into a graphic novel. The design is so prominent, the characters are so clearly – almost comically – drawn, and the energy at Gatsby’s endless parties is so titanic that you want to pull away. But Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, draws us onward. Maguire’s innocence and his proper Midwestern politeness are all over his face, but his eyes reveal a need for danger, a curiosity and a lust that tempt us to join him in the wild ride.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s still-boyish good looks and his Hollywood charm are the perfect Gatsby: Gatsby the ideal, the American dream, up from poverty by will and guile to the top of the world no matter the means. But as an actor, DiCaprio comes up wanting when the dream is shattered.

Luhrmann lets him down at the end. He lets us all down. It feels as if he took so much time at the party and left us no time to breath in the desolate air when the party is over. After the violence of death, Fitzgerald’s novel begins sounding a very different note. Luhrmann leaves no time to feel the isolation, the desolation, the emptiness of abandonment. He’s still dancing as fast as he can. He never gives us the moment of recognition we require that Fitzgerald, the great storyteller, knows we need. He gives us the text, right there on the screen. But the depth of the feeling is missing amid the glamour.

Categories: Movies

3 thoughts on ““The Great Gatsby”: The Luhrmann Razzle-Dazzle”

  1. Anonymous says:

    When I saw The Great Gatsby recently I felt that Di Caprio was, indeed, a “real” character playing with caricatures/cartoons as associates. The party scenes reminded me of being in a downtown Milwaukee night club with everyone dancing years ago, where there were so many people and the architecture was greater than all of us that everyone felt, at best, like a spec in the universe. Good review – you touched on all the important points. When I was leaving the Oriental Theater one person was telling another that he preferred the version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow (which I’ve never seen, but now I’m curious!).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Nice to read a review that points out how irrelevant story and character are to Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic music video’s. As far as movie versions of Great Gatsby, and

  3. This movie was amazing. I just loved it, and so did my mom (who had read the book beforehand). I have to agree that it glorified drinking, smoking, and sex. But you have to remember that this movie is set in the Roaring 20’s. This is a time when all the rules about marriage got looser. When it comes to drinking, this is the time of Probation, when alcohol was, for the majority, banned. Since this movie was based on the rich New York party crowd I’m the 1920’s, this movie was very accurate. Language wise, there is quite a few d**n’s and some h*lls but nothing more than that. There is some scenes that imply people are having affairs but nothing more than their shoulders up shown. For violence, a man beats his wife and another thing happens that I won’t share because of spoilers. But nothing to intense. People drink and smoke (cigars, cigarettes) at the parties and some are shown to be drunk. This movie is very thought provoking and is so much more than a romance. You will leave the theater thinking, “What just happened.” You get completely sucked into the movie and the ending leave you bewildered.

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