The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann

BY Robert BellPublished May 9, 2013

As a text demonstrating the concepts of artifice and a metaphor for those under pupillage — one that deconstructs the Western mythology quite succinctly in nine short chapters — F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is almost anecdotal in nature.

The story, while functional and rich, is unimportant. This novel was Fitzgerald's attempt to be less facile; it was his foray into a world of deliberate form and pointed prose, savouring words and language as an extension of intent and meaning beyond his role as social historian, saying something incisive about the ornately idiotic pursuit of sensation defining the American elite.

Luhrmann's vision is a strange one. Though it's not surprising that the notoriously garish and bombastic theatrical director — a man that refuses to acknowledge cinema as an intimate medium for capturing subtle, ephemeral truths — would revel in the surface world presented in the source material, it makes for a complicated interpretation and viewing.

Superficially, the sheer excess of this 3D version, a film that literally has characters drawing stars through the sky, suggests audience implication. Just as the source story is about Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a man outside of the party (mostly) looking in, watching the unsustainable lives of his married cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her past/present lover, the titular Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), collide, explode and inevitably fizzle, we, like him, are still curious to at least attend the party before the hangover (or reality) sets in.

As we learn of Gatsby's roots as a poor man, working his way up specifically to be worthy of the affections of Daisy, a woman, now in a loveless marriage, with whom he had an impassioned affair years prior, the modern soundtrack dominates, as do stylized montages and metaphorical, often embarrassing, moral inserts chastising the racial and social faux-pas of the marionette characters.

Because it's all treated like a dream, infused with endless glitz, glamour and obvious style over substance, the assumption, given that the story is a critique of such mindless indulgence, is that we're being insulted for drooling over sensationalized imagery.

But, the thing is, Luhrmann never steps back from his vision to suggest that he's in on the joke, instead rehashing a style he's made increasingly desultory throughout his lexicon of films. He often takes the same sort of story — impossible romances made tragic — and attempts to heighten the drama through sheer pizzazz. Instead, what he does is alienate and detach us from emotional connection, treating human behaviour as hyperbolic performance, which is ultimately what makes The Great Gatsby a painfully cold and frustrating viewing experience.

Never once is the tragedy of these lives moving, or even particularly relevant, amidst the erratic camerawork and gaudy set designs. The actors aren't given enough intimacy to reveal anything about their characters beyond archetype and performance, which has ostensibly been the problem with every Luhrmann film.

As such, it's difficult to interpret this rendition as an academic experiment in condescension. Instead, it seems that the Moulin Rouge director isn't in on the joke and doesn't understand that the party will eventually end. The downfall of everyone is as theatrical and melodramatic as the shallow social performance preceding it, suggesting that the presentation of grotesque cinematic indulgence isn't intended to substitute for the frivolity of the affluent in the text so much as it's merely a template for Luhrmann to exploit his tendency for the grandiose.

If he's attempting to mirror his style — a style that, unlike Fitzgerald's, hasn't been honed with time — with that of the writer's, acknowledging that the story is merely a vessel for style as subtext, it's not apparent amidst this barrage of hollow images.

Here, while the rich get richer and the poor get laid, the audience is invited to the party to watch, like Nick Carraway, but never given enough perspective to view it from the outside. The lights are far too bright and the shouts far too loud and oppressive to grant us that freedom.

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