There is one — and, sadly, only one — good scene in the new, gaudy, mega budget adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It’s an emotional confrontation between three people at different points in a love triangle. The dialogue is prickly and tense. The actors (Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton and Leonardo DiCaprio) overdo it, but in a film in which everything is overdone, this is the moment the cast negotiate with a filmmaker determined to smother them with sparkles and find a satisfying middle ground.
It’s a good scene because director Baz “never enough bling” Luhrmann could not fit a crane inside such a small room. He could not film it from a helicopter. He left the buckets of confetti, glitter and snowflakes on another soundstage. Even Luhrmann had the nous not to rip the scene to pieces with crash zooms, camera swoops and rapid cuts; what, as Samuel L. Jackson noted in Pulp Fiction, “alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity.” A crucial part of directing is trusting your cast. One of Luhrmann’s key problems is that he self-evidently does not.
The glam-porn devotee’s distrust of actors has worsened over time, as budgets soared and his ego inflated accordingly, or vice versa — but there were traces of it from the get-go. In Strictly Ballroom (1992) Paul Mercurio was a dancer first and an actor second. In Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) the cast were used as instruments, and if they happened to exhibit some humanity in the process, so much the better.
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In the eponymous role, DiCaprio had no chance of making a real human impression until well into the second half of Gatsby. He fights an impossible battle against blizzards of over-baked production values and editing room carnage, the magnitude of which he could only have vaguely grasped at time of shooting, splatters of Moulin Rouge!’s psychotropic can-can dancing presumably ricocheting through his mind.
It is when the film eventually slows down that something resembling a tangible character emerges, but by then the damage has been done and Luhrmann’s cartoony grasp of a magnificent novel has been liquored-up and dumbed-down: more Big Mouse than Fitzgerald, a gentle stroll through a theme park (don’t forget your 3D glasses!) of enchanting looking gardens and Disney-like mansions.
His previous film, Australia (2008), was a giant sizzling shrimp of stereotypes, a typically Luhrmannian more-is-more spectacle told with all the grace of Paul Hogan walloping hunks of meat with a rainbow coloured spatula. It was intended, one can only assume from its title and masturbatory melange of Aussiesyncrasies, to pack a punch as the great Australian film. Instead it was a phosphorescent ball sack of true blue patrimony: shirtless rovers, Aboriginal Dream Time, beer and blokes, shearers and sheep.
It says something of the 50-year-old auteur’s ambition that his next project would make a play for the great American film, or at least rework one of Uncle Sam’s most prized literary belongings. As Luhrmann supporters have noted, his Gatsby will promote Fitzgerald’s work to a new generation of readers more inclined to dip in shallower waters (say, Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling) and who will be bitterly disappointed to discover the book does not explode with glitter once opened.
The moment Gatsby (DiCaprio) first meets narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) was an understated element in the novel indicative of Fitzgerald’s precise, whispery prose; I remember it as a cautious moment between two would-be friends. Naturally Luhrmann decides to film it with fireworks exploding in the background and an orchestra pumping out tunes — an indication that maybe, just maybe, he might have misinterpreted the original text, or stuck the pages together with melted down candy cane before deciding how to adapt it.
This time around (there have been three other Gatsby movies, including a lost 1926 version) a fresh bookend framing device has Carraway sharing thought waves with Dr. Perkins ( Jack Thompson). Carraway is encouraged to write the story of how he met a mysterious millionaire called Jay Gatsby and what became of their relationship.
This framing device was inserted so Maguire can literally write “The Great” before Gatsby’s name later in the movie, suggesting Luhrmann actually believed the character to be, well, great — not the uneasy, manipulating, shimmering mirage constructed by Fitzgerald. Gatsby’s moniker is, perhaps, a nod to magic’s golden era performers — i.e. “The Great Houdini” — which is to say, another way of suggesting he is more illusion than man.
Set in New York in the roaring 20s, Luhrmann’s version (co-written by Craig Pearce) amplifies the story as a tragic romance played out between Gatsby, Daisy (Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton), with Carraway sandwiched in the middle.
The only theme that translates from book to film with a patina of the power or significance of the source material pertains to the doomed nature of Gatsby’s mission to reconstruct an inimitable past, the complications of which he is incapable of seeing clearly through a haze of nostalgia. So deeply written into the book and screenplay, and reiterated directly via dialogue for those who hadn’t already picked up on it, even Luhrmann can get this more or less right.
But the film itself is very wrong. Like a drunk clown delivering a eulogy, it’s hard to maintain dignity when you make such ludicrous choices, and Luhrmann seems to have seriously believed he could take control of a richly nuanced drama by bombarding it with special effects. There’s an important difference between a) putting a different spin on an old text, b) misinterpreting it and c) misinterpreting it to the point that you celebrate and glorify the same things the author so carefully cautioned and, ultimately, denounced.
Thus we have headlines such as ‘Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is an ode to the art of excess‘, the irony being Fitzgerald worked slavishly to achieve the opposite: to represent those champagne soaked parties as means to hangovers, the glitz and glam of the bourgeois as devastating illusions. One could suggest this fundamental part of the Gatsby ethos need not apply to an artist in a different medium pursuing a different “vision” — but the extent to which the thought processes around construction of characters and context have been corroded is also key to understanding why Luhrmann’s version barely registers any dramatic impact.
Luhrmann has one style for directing drama, and it’s “Hallmark.” We see this when Gatsby eventually slows and the film affords its actors some, albeit little, space to breathe (it even includes retro car racing scenes reminiscent of screwball comedies: Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels  and Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business ).
But it’s not the drama that will rouse general audiences from their couches to see this glitter-smothered wrecking ball. Five films into a career that began relatively modestly then exploded like a dynamite-rigged disco, Gatsby cements Luhrmann’s place in the film industry as the quasi-intellectual’s Michael Bay: a pedantic perfectionist fighting an impossible battle to make art, or make art better, by simply doing more. More glitter. More colour. Bigger sets. Brighter lights. Faster. Louder. Larger.
Supporters of both directors rebuke critics by turning to the same place. They turn to the box office.
There’s a name for the Bay/Luhrmann style. As the Transformers trash humper so eloquently put it, it’s called “fucking the frame.” Bay makes bad movies about macho men, bathtub toys and explosions; in other words, his style matches the context they are received in and the wrapping with which they are packaged. Luhrmann’s creative sensibilities arise from the same gene pool but, given a false veneer of high art, they become deceptive and potentially corrosive, capable of eating away at the heart of something profound and turning it into hollowed-out husk.
For directors who don’t wish to have their work compared to great literature (and who would?) I have one simple, fail-safe strategy you can follow: don’t base your films on great literature. If you do you shoulder a big burden, and risk looking like Luhrmann does: a kid in a museum more interested in sucking lollipops and listening to his iPod than looking at the paintings.
Luhrmann would be well advised to read Sidney Lumet’s book on making movies. The late filmmaker discusses key challenges directors face including determining the essence of a feature before it is made (what is it supposed to say? Why am I making it?) then using all the wonderful weapons they have to achieve it. This is form driven by content. Baz got it around the wrong way, big time.
If you own a copy of The Great Gatsby, you don’t need to cough up hard-earned to see Luhrmann’s movie. The experience can be replicated quite easily at home.
Here’s what you do. Play hip hop loudly. Retrieve the book from your shelf and douse it with glitter. Get a (preferably gold painted) hammer and smash it repeatedly. Turn the music up louder. Throw on more glitter. Do it again. Do it harder. Do it faster. And don’t, whatever you do, pause to consider what the author of the book might think of the grisly, glittering mess around you.
The Great Gatsby’s Australian theatrical release date: May 30, 2013.