Leonardo DiCaprio unpicks Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for Donald Clarke
We worry too much about the faithfulness of adaptations. If the folk who made Forbidden Planet can, with such success, transplant
The Tempest to outer space, then we can endure the occasional tweak to our Dickens and the odd poke at our Hardy. All we ask is that the film succeed on its own terms. You are prepared to be reasonable? Glad to hear it.
So what in the name of fudge is this thing? You don’t watch Baz Luhrmann’s detonation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; you get beaten up by it. A glance at even a few seconds of the trailer will alert you to a jarring (if expected) shift in tone. Whereas the book was an elegantly structured exercise in social nuance, the film careers from excess to excess before toppling into another puddle of excess. The temptation to title it Gatsby!!! must have been close to overwhelming.
It would be most unfair – though satisfying – to suggest that Luhrmann has taken the book into the loo and wiped his bum with it. In fact, the script sticks reasonably close to Fitzgerald’s plot. A ludicrous, tacked-on framing sequence does, however, alert us to the impending war on subtlety.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), blank narrator of book and film, is resting in a sanatorium after being diagnosed as morbidly alcoholic. We know this because, within seconds of the film beginning, a stereotyped psychiatrist writes the phrase “morbidly alcoholic” at the top of his report. Perhaps, the doctor suggests, Nick might like to write his story down for us. Words appear on the screen and we drift back to Long Island of the Prohibition years.
Nick, of course, lives next door to a mysterious socialite named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Over the course of a dissolute summer, Nick parties at the enigma’s house, becomes his friend and ends up acting as an amateur Cupid. Jay has long been in love with a delicate socialite named Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), now married to a boorish polo player, and is delighted to discover that his new neighbour is the girl’s cousin. You know how this story goes, old sport.
What a bizarre project this is. Luhrmann and his team have immersed themselves in the source material for four long years. Catherine Martin, the film’s designer, has laboured over eye-popping sets constructed from spun sugar and drugged dreams. Jay-Z has supervised a soundtrack that, utilising collaborators such as Kanye West, Jack White and Beyoncé, ploughs aggressively through a staggering number of quasi-contemporary tunes that most of us were already sick of three years ago.
The end result of all this effort is a film that looks and sounds exactly as you’d expect a Baz Luhrmann enterprise to look and sound. The delayed reveal of DiCaprio exemplifies the folly very effectively. Unseen to this point, he twinkles towards the camera and smiles luminously as fireworks explode to the strains of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in
Blue. The scene tells us nothing about Gatsby or his time but, as a tribute to the continuing fabulousness of Baz Luhrmann, it works quite brilliantly.
The Luhrmann patent product, showcased most conspicuously here and in Moulin Rouge!, comes across as a class of bottled preserve that can be spread on any surface to deliver much the same taste and texture. The absurdly heightened digital landscapes – less naturalistic than those of Lord of the Rings – may attempt depictions of New York City and Long Island. But the film’s choppy rhythms, clean collars and
pounding MOR sounds locate the action firmly in Luhrmann World. Smear this stuff on Jude the Obscure, The Great Escape or SpongeBob Square Pants and you’ll end up with much the same end product.
Does it work on its own febrile terms? Well, DiCaprio is nicely cast as a magnificent self-invention, but he has some trouble faking the fake accent. Carey Mulligan fails to make sense of a near-unplayable part. Joel Edgerton never comes close to capturing the patrician self-possession of Daisy’s husband.
Their efforts are irrelevant. So overpowering is Luhrmann’s style – particularly in the breathless first half – that the actors never get a chance to stand out from the furniture (which is very nice). It’s less a film than a compendium of Baz’s greatest tropes. His many fans will approve. Others will find the experience utterly suffocating.
All-star film soundtracks are opportunities to showboat, and executive producer Jay-Z takes full advantage of this. Aside from rifling through his contacts book, he also pivots it as “a Gatsby for the hip-hop age”, though you wonder how to square this aim with some of the cast, such as The xx and their somnolent, slo-mo minimalism. Leaving the concept to one side, several cuts work beyond the soundtrack constraints. Jigga’s own 100$ Bill is a solid meditation on the ups and downs of power; André 3000 and Beyoncé pitch down for a version of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black; and Jack White’s take on U2’s Love Is Blindness revs the angst right up. Meanwhile, Lana Del Rey’s Young & Beautiful reminds you of her prowess when it comes to highlighting big-screen ballads. thegreatgatsby.warnerbros.com Download: Jay-Z, 100$ Bill; Lana Del Rey, Young & Beautiful