Baz Luhrmann is the great cinematic whipping boy of our times - and probably with good reason. Since slamming Shakespeare into unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts on the shores of Venice Beach (to great success), each of his cinematic outings has drawn accusations of maverick genius, unintelligible derivation, and nauseating excess. His films are not so much works of cinema as they are Vaseline smears of sugary cotton candy, at once giddily delicious and deeply, horrifically sickening. Perfect in moderation, but leading, inevitably, to a rotting, compacted cavity.
With his hip-hopping, 3D-popping reinvention of ‘The Great Gatsby’, that most iconic of American classics, he proves definitively that his saccharine flirtation with style over substance is total and all-consuming, and that his most derivative detractor, at the end of the day, is himself.
Who is Gatsby, and what makes him so great? Struggling writer and tortured alcoholic, Nick (Tobey Maguire), sits in a sanitarium, refusing treatment from his psychiatrist. He can’t articulate into words the source of his malaise, only that it revolves around the mysterious figure of ‘Gatsby’, his exultantly rich neighbour on the glamorous New York borough of West Egg. Why not write it down instead? his psych suggests. And so, with a flurry of 3D-rendered letters and typewriter clacks, the story of Gatsby retreats into the past: to the roaring 1920s, the excesses of living too large for too long, and the immutable fickleness of the human heart...
Baz has copped a lot of flack for his relentlessly... modern... take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, infusing the stately and immaculately mannered 20s setting with an anachronistic soundtrack, hyperkinetic CGI visuals, and a breathless, attention-deficit pace. His defenders point to this as clever parabolic styling, a necessity to invigorate the aging material, ensuring its relevance to a savvy modern audience. The counter-argument runs that being both “parabolic” and “clever” involves some level of conscious consideration – a deliberate use of semiotics to intend a calculated reading. There is, of course, no definitive reading of anything – but it’s hard to see how ‘The Great Gatsby’ is anything other than an almighty mess.
It’s not so much the specific modern trappings that undo Luhrmann’s ‘Gatsby’ as it is how ineptly it’s constructed. The older Luhrmann gets, the more his films feel stunted and juvenile. His ‘Gatsby’ is a love story - a tragedy, a melodrama, and a rave told with the emotional maturity and complexity of a teenager. It’s painfully clear the film was borne on the back of one singular premise – the parties will be like clubbing! – and by the time the film concerns itself with the ramifications of its own plot, it’s become a victim of its own artifice. Telling a story about artifice using artifice doesn’t make your film ironic, it makes it artificial and empty. A pop-song is not a substitute for emotion, Baz. Not even if it’s Adele.
On a purely technical level, ‘Gatsby’s’ images and motifs don’t meet in a marriage of synergy so much as collide with bewildering force, making it hard to believe there’s any kind of intention beneath any of Luhrmann’s artistic decisions. There’s no meaning in his mis en scene, no thought or idea communicated that isn’t travelling 100 miles per hour and pummeling you in the face. No scene passes without a musical cue or sound effect; Luhrmann’s terror of letting the film sit in silence, to let it dwell too deeply upon its own conceits, is as blatantly palpable as it is exhausting.
‘The Great Gatsby’ is a melodrama of the highest order, but one lacking the theatrical framework to justify its theatricality.
Making use of an odious voice-over in place of narrative momentum, this is a story told, not shown, and in his efforts to immerse the audience in the world of his characters – a world he’s desperate to show is exactly like ours – he ensures that his characters becoming nothing more than... characters. Just as in Hooper’s adaptation of ‘Les Miserables’, Luhrmann’s inability to hold a shot longer than five seconds is as mentally draining as it is visually disconnecting; there’s no sense of space or time, leaving his poor actors to exist in a void, unable to translate the beats of their characters to a performance that’s remotely coherence. Here’s hoping participation is its own reward, because rarely have so many good actors been put to such waste.
Like all of Luhrmann’s films, ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a melodrama of the highest order, but one lacking the theatrical framework to justify its theatricality. The film lurches from scene to scene and tone to tone (now we laugh, now we swoon, now we dance, now we cry) with such abruptness that it all becomes... meaningless. At almost two and a half hours, the dubious moniker of "mindless entertainment" is impractically applied – it long outstays its welcome by the time it reaches an odious and unearned denouement.
Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a perfect example of a film crippled by its own conceit – one so firmly in love with its own possibilities, emotion, glitz and ideas – that it’s blind to its own shortcomings. No holy writ states that ‘The Great Gatsby’ isn’t relevant to our times, and could not be translated to a modern sensibility – quite the opposite. And for some, Luhrmann’s style will undoubtedly gel. But if we agree that art is both the heart and the mind working in chorus – as Fitzgerald’s novel most certainly is – then Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a long way from art.