Movie Review: The Great Gatsby- Baz Luhrmann’s Disastrous Focus on Lavish Style Over Substance Results in a Disparaging Adaptation of Fitzgerald’s Novel

greatgatsby3There is certainly a timeless allure to the thin yet dramatically perceptive novel “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald that keeps bringing failed attempt after failed attempt to cinematically adapt its feverish tale of love amidst the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties. No one has ever really captured the novel’s delicate intimacy, the time period’s extravagance versus dispossession, or the thematic criticism of American decline in full leaving behind unfulfilling experiences much like with Jack Clayton’s 1974 version, which starred Robert Redford in the illustrious title role. But no matter how ineffectual previous versions have been none are more misguided or more disastrously disappointing than director Baz Luhrmann’s latest disparaging adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Known for his excessively animated flair in films such as Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet Luhrmann has always been the subject of interest in all of his films making them megalomaniacal exercises in overindulgence. One can ultimately imagine that this type of self-aggrandizing filmmaking would be drastically inappropriate for an intimately constructed story such as “The Great Gatsby,” and that assumption proves correct in more ways than one. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby becomes a divisive clash of tonally inconsistent scenes where the slim moments of dramatic sincerity are lost through the high energy chaos that is the Luhrmann style wasting a great deal of the novel’s potential modern relevance. All of the poignant themes and dramatic sensibility from the novel are lavishly overstated through overly vibrant camerawork, disorganized editing, and disconnected performances distorting the very values that the original novel intended to highlight. Luhrmann’s cliff notes grasp of the material translates into an incredibly hollow and artificial experience where the glitz and glamour of the time period receives the utmost detail in glamorous 3D while the characters slip away into one dimensional obscurity. In this version of The Great Gatsby it becomes increasingly hard to beat on, boats against the decadent current, borne back ceaselessly into wasted opportunities.

Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby doesn’t necessarily deviate from the detailed timeline of events set within the original novel’s construction but the leading issue is a misplaced interpretation of the dramatic subtleties and thematic subtext of the material. It seems whether it’s interpreting Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” Puccini’s “La Boheme,” or now Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” there is always a complete disconnect with the original content focusing on the amplification of performance rather than of character making any potential adaptation by Luhrmann and his long term writing partner Craig Pearce a fruitless endeavor. Throughout the film there never seems to be a consistent tonal underpinning leaving each scene to flail about in their own existence attempting to desperately grasp some sort of weak relation to each other, almost exactly like the awkward love story that unfolds as a result of the poor focus in writing. Awkward humor clashes with melodramatic exasperations creating a schizophrenic environment of artificial character connections and insincere revelations. Both Luhrmann and Pearce seem to have a dearth of understanding towards Fitzgerald’s work and all of the potential and relevant pathos falls through the gaping holes of their misinterpretation. Luhrmann writes what he intends to visually focus on so his ambivalence towards the subtleties in the relationship between Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) as well as his overstatement of the heartbreaking themes unfortunately makes a rather soulless and antipathetic love story. This is a tale of love that contains zero romantic inclinations but possesses an abundance of incessant droning narration from our boring protagonist Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) that makes the film all the more leaden. This Great Gatsby has a plethora of detail in all of the superficial elements within the film but none where it truly matters and that’s in the delicate nuances of Fitzgerald’s sensible drama and characters.

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Visual indulgence has always been the guilty allure of all Baz Luhrmann films but despite his acute detail in the costumes, sets, and reconstruction of a 1920s New York, though admirable, inevitably feels as artificial as his romantic subjects. The overuse of green screen CGI gimmickry combined with the magnifying 3D camerawork dilute The Great Gatsby into nothing more than stylish frenzy that becomes increasingly domineering to the senses that matter while watching a film. Most of the reconstructed digital sets actually appear more noticeably false as the film trudges along at its languid pace making the film seem inappropriately otherworldly and fantastical instead of grounded for relatable connection. Everything about The Great Gatsby in style is the antithesis of what Fitzgerald would have intended since it’s an embodiment of unrestrained technical opulence with its forcibly old-fashioned pop-music mixes, sweeping tracking shots, and glittery production design. Luhrmann definitely captures the party atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties but loses the intention of Fitzgerald’s material by focusing on his typical hyperactive style instead of the intimacy of the drama. At this point in Luhrmann’s career it seems that his self-indulgent filmmaking style has taken a life of its own practically mocking itself as it unfolds the dramatic sequences with either awkward humor or melodramatic hyperbole creating a completely inconsistent film in tone and enjoyment. This is The Great Gatsby told through the lens of self-parody as the spectacle of style trumps the delicacy of tragedy removing all potential relevance Fitzgerald’s book could have given a modern audience. As the film focuses on stylish antics the audience urgently awaits for some semblance of romantic connection or a possibility of tragic repercussions that never arrive. Luhrmann’s obsession with his own visual extravagance might make for momentary moments of inspired beauty but everything else from the thematic importance of the novel to the performances of the actors suffer in its disastrous wake.

It’s difficult for any actor to overcome poor direction especially in an environment of overdone style that seems to mock any admirable attempt to give an authentic performance. Unfortunately for most of the talented cast involved any redeemable qualities in their performances are swallowed by Luhrmann’s overbearingly inconsistent tone between humorous deviations and histrionic amplifications. Leonardo DiCaprio might be the highlight of the film as the illustrious Jay Gatsby as he personifies the mysterious millionaire with self-assurance mixed with drastic insecurity finally giving the character some proper sympathy. Though DiCaprio has become sort of a caricature of his own abilities in recent years there always seems to be a touch of inspired grace to his movements and pronunciations that give him an on screen charm that is hard to come by. Close behind is a solid performance from Joel Edgerton as the despicable womanizer Tom Buchanan as he seems the most comfortable in the old-fashioned setting and carries himself with authentic bravado and an unsympathetic lousiness. Unfortunately for Carey Mulligan, an incredibly talented actress as seen in Shame and An Education, she battles uphill expectations as to who Daisy is to the reader but also gets lost in the stylish fray that is Luhrmann’s ceaseless lavishness. She isn’t the only one to get lost in the production as most of the admirable performances from supporting actors such as Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, and the great Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan are simply existent without a proper purpose. However, if there was truly a testament to the limitations of a particular actor The Great Gatsby definitely showcases Tobey Maguire’s limits. Perhaps it’s the intolerable nature of his narration or the messiness of the production but Maguire as the protagonist can’t hold our interest for more than a couple of minutes as his performance looks as lost as his character and void of any inspired delivery. When you put your focus on the animation of your film instead of the depth of your story and characters everything eventually suffers, including the performances by notable and talented actors.

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“The Great Gatsby” has been labeled as an unfilmable book for a plethora of reasons but mostly because there is an interpretive subtext to the novel that only the reader can really fill in for themselves. When someone else attempts to interpret what must be a deeply subjective and personal experience to each person it tends to get a little lost in translation. However, that isn’t the root criticism for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gastby since he misses far more than basic interpretation of the characters or the time period but also the book’s essential criticisms of American decline. Whether or not Fitzgerald’s ideas are correct that core of the book should be preserved for any adaptation especially since it guides all of the tragic decisions and repercussions that ensue through the book. Unfortunately Baz Luhrmann wasn’t interested in focusing on the poignancy of the novel or the romantic intimacy of the characters but rather he decided to do what he does best, utilize style over content creating an insipid and uninspired experience. While there is a plethora of CGI recreated environments, an attention to detail in costume and set, and some extravagant camerawork all of those technical achievements eventually detract from the overall themes and intentions of Fitzgerald’s potentially relevant story. Fans of Luhrmann’s self-indulgent filmmaking might find some enjoyment in its ridiculously overstated style but overall it’s a misguided adaptation that ignores the delicacy of original novel both in theme and in purpose.

Grade: C-

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Comments
One Response to “Movie Review: The Great Gatsby- Baz Luhrmann’s Disastrous Focus on Lavish Style Over Substance Results in a Disparaging Adaptation of Fitzgerald’s Novel”
  1. vvices92 says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet (doesn’t come out til Wednesday in France) but had been looking forward to it a lot. Saddened to hear that the new Gatsby sounds like a dud. It didn’t even warrant a C+?? Gutted. Beautifully written review, though!

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