It is entirely possible to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s latest disco furball The Great Gatsby, despite repeated suggestions to the contrary. An adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Luhrmann rightly has full licence to go completely mental with it and this he certainly does. With any adaptation, the author loses their story and any right to influence the telling of the story beyond what the director wants to listen to, living or dead. As is the case here, Luhrmann takes the celebrated novel and smears sugary butter between the words. I am all for the antiquated notion of killing your darlings. Charles Bukowski said it best when he wrote ‘sometimes you have to take the whole concept of art and throw it out on its whore ass.’ That much is certain – Luhrmann practically takes the novel out for a dance and forces moet down its throat. What’s not clear is the reason why he chose to adapt such a renowned novel as this. The film barely suggests he is a fan of the novel as he rips out the very heart of the novel and discards it with the spare fairy lights that litter the huge party scenes.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is writing about his past experiences as a means of finding balance in his life, as suggested by his psychiatrist. He soon finds his focus: recounting the beginning and fallout of a love triangle including Tom (Joel Edgerton) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), plus Jay Gatsby himself (Leonardo Dicaprio). Nothing else happens besides the warm bodies one could call characters say a few more things and then the thing at the end happens (to avoid spoiling for those who haven’t read it).
Fitzgerald’s novel is a tale of loneliness. It deals with decadence (which Baz surely knows a few things about), social upheaval and idealism. It is a criticism of the pursuit and achievement of The American Dream. That is the version Fitzgerald gave us.
Baz’s movie is about... well, nothing really. One could argue it is a long 3D soap opera about a man longing for his now-married girlfriend. Another argument is it is about a manchild’s travels throughout the Wonka Factory, throwing sugar cubes into the air whenever someone dares to suggest the idea of sensibility.
That’s all well and good if you really don’t care about what’s in the novel. If you liked Transformers (Micheal Bay being the action-movie Baz) there’s a good chance you’ll like this. But where Bay has the intelligence to offer a criticism of decadence through his own decadence and even offer a laugh along the way, Luhrmann fills the gaps with candy cane sweetness.
Even the actors aren’t given a chance to do anything remotely memorable. Tobey Maguire, as Carraway, spends his time smiling as the meat in the Daisy, Tom and Jay Gatsby sandwich. DiCaprio could have really shined as Gatsby. Instead, we’re left with the scraps of what could have been an excellent performance if it were under the guise of another filmmaker. There’s one lone good scene and it’s thrown towards the end of the film: Gatsby confronts Buchanan about reclaiming what was once his. There’s no chance for cameras to move about on cranes in this tiny room and it almost looks out of place when considering the rest of the film. It’s this scene that hints at what The Great Gatsby could have been. Here though, Edgerton doesn’t get the chance to do much beyond frown and wear racing tights and Mulligan is the waify princess she didn’t need to be.
Watching The Great Gatsby the big question of why Luhrmann felt the need to attach the name to this is never answered. He clearly is not invested whatsoever in Fitzgerald’s prose and what of it literally appears on screen (yes, literally) is done with visual intentions, nothing else. What we’re given could have easily been created out of Baz’s own creative mind, it’s that thin, and the hassle of buying the rights from the Fitzgerald estate could have been avoided. I don’t know how many times he has read the book but it comes across like he completely missed the point and covered up his limited understanding with more Beyonce covers. Do yourself a favour: take your own copy of the book and throw it into a bowl of cake mix. That’s Baz’s version right there.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire