Film Review | The Great Gatsby

No amount of glitz or Jay-Z acquired modern tunes can rescue this indulgent, crashing mess.

Bright young things: Tobey Maguire (left), Carey Mulligan (right), Leonardo Di Caprio (back, left) and Joel Edgerton (back, right) star in this woefully misguided adaptation of one of the greatest American novels of all time.
Bright young things: Tobey Maguire (left), Carey Mulligan (right), Leonardo Di Caprio (back, left) and Joel Edgerton (back, right) star in this woefully misguided adaptation of one of the greatest American novels of all time.

I would have found it difficult to imagine that any film released this year would be more painful to watch than that crashing, overlong, awards magnet Les Miserables. But it seems as if Australian director Baz Luhrmann - famous for his wild stylistic excesses - has decided to regale me with an early summer surprise.

His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic tale of post-war American decadence and - more poignantly and enduringly - lost love not only fails to resurrect his reputation after the critical disaster that was Australia (2008), it also manages to be so fundamentally wrong-footed in its storytelling that you're left wondering how it was even made at all.

Set in the prosperous ring of Long Island high society during the 'Roaring Twenties', the story, a classic with good reason - despite its very specific and appealing historical context, it resonates deeply as a thoroughly human drama - orbits around the observer figure of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). A WWI veteran and occasional writer, Nick decides to take a job as a bond salesman in Long Island, taking residence next to his cousin, a high society debutante by the name of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).

Riding the wave of the Wall Street boom, Nick also finds himself swept into the decadent whirl of Long Island party life. The chief 'master of ceremonies' for the most spectacular parties of them all, however, remains shrouded in mystery. Hearing the name 'Jay Gatsby' (Leonardo Di Caprio) in hushed and baffled tones amongst the high society revellers he finds himself lumped with, Nick soon discovers that the host of the spectacular late night revels is his neighbour - a fact that gets him an official invitation to one of Gatsby's parties, an honour not usually bestowed on his patrons (who know they can just show up).

Soon enough, however, the true purpose of Gatsby's sudden interest in Nick is revealed: he needs the naïve bondsman to set up a meeting with Daisy - Gatsby's old flame before the war tore them apart. But Daisy is a married woman now, and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) is not a guy to be messed with.

And when the truth behind the shadowy Gatsby - and enormous wealth - begins to gradually come to light, the pieces of a bona fide tragedy are set to fall in place.

The real tragedy, however, is that this lasting and tender story about the persistent - and often deadly - power of memory and the foibles of society is now pummelled into something resembling a garish carnival float.

Luhrmann always wore his stylistic excesses on his sleeve, and sometimes, they actually worked a treat. Romeo + Juliet (1996) remains one of the most striking Shakespeare adaptations of all time, and Moulin Rouge! (2001) is rightly adored for its exuberant evocation of the titular cabaret temple's twilight years.

But although anachronistic music and over-the-top theatrics were a perfect fit for Moulin Rouge! through and through, that sort of thing is - crucially - only one half of what 'Gatsby' is all about. The Jay-Z-curated soundtrack and hyperkinetic shots of glittering tassles, fireworks and any number of 'Spectacular! Spectacular!' party props are all present and accounted for, and appreciated.

But then, the story requires a shift into a more emotional gear. However because Luhrmann sticks to the same cartoony palette from start to finish, any human connection to the story and its characters is telegraphed - in useless 'THREE-DEE!' - over several layers of caked-on kitsch.

There's a scene in the film's penultimate act - arguably the story's true climax - in which the characters do little else but talk. But it's important, drama-shifting talk, which in any serious film would have been emotionally crushing. But because Luhrmann is more concerned with dazzle than character, this scene dissolves into little more than a group of marionettes screaming at each other.

Honestly, the kitsch never stops. It's clear that Luhrmann can only speak in that register. Even scenes which supposedly serve as psychological insight, or commentary upon the whole gaudy, decadent scenario are delivered in clumsy, swooping camera strokes, supposedly 'enhanced' by THREE-DEE! and digital effects.

Never mind Di Caprio's unrequited romance (and it's such a dry performance, especially off the heels of his diabolically delicious turn in Django Unchained). It's sickening that Fitzgerald's silken prose - it really is no exaggeration to say that it flows like warm chocolate - finds its least compatible cinematic correlative in this honking mess.

The awfulness of Luhrmann's film is powered by an energy that seems to emanate from the deepest pits of hell. It's a feverish slideshow of 'vintage postcard' images that doesn't even allow you the vague restfulness of boredom. Instead it flashes epileptically on and on, like an Instagram nickelodeon operated by a chimpanzee high on cocaine.

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