IT HAS been suggested that there’s something of the Gatsby about Baz Luhrmann, since both men are predisposed to throwing extravagantly spectacular parties, with just a hint of hollowness.
The Great Gatsby 3D (12A)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Running time: 142 minutes
It’s a nice thought, but really Baz is closer to Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen from Changing Rooms, a man who views vintage works as outdated fixer-uppers in need of MDF flourishes. Leafing through F Scott Fitzgerald’s coruscating novel, the thinking seems to run as follows: “What we really need is Handy Andy to knock this up in 3D. Plus loads of confetti, fireworks, snow and Citizen Kane-style deep focus. And a camera that hurtles around like a hungry flea.”
Poor old Fitzgerald has been Bazjazzled into something written ENTIRELY IN CAPITALS. And exclamations!!! An anachronistic soundtrack featuring the likes of Will.i.am and Beyoncé is there to underscore the freshness of the Jazz Age for those who might be confused by the use of a bunch of old tunes. Even Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) gets a makeover, so that we first meet him as a middle-aged alcoholic prone to rages, which doesn’t sound much like Nick, who was the most reasonable member of the rotten crowd. However, it does sound a lot like Fitzgerald in his later years, when he lodged in the Grove Park Inn in North Carolina, firing a gun out of his hotel window. And that pain in your ribs? That’s Luhrmann making sure you get that he is making a literary quote. Look: there are even words floating off Nick’s typewriter as his story gathers speed.
All the main characters get introduced in the manner of rabbits drawn from hats. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy appears like Venus from behind a sofa, although neither Luhrmann nor Mulligan can make her as unattainably alluring or charismatic as Fitzgerald and Gatsby think she is. Her thuggish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) pops up and all but waxes his moustache portentously.
Then there is Gatsby himself, accorded a build-up that finally erupts at the climax of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue with a background of fireworks. By now the cheese factor is so off the scale that you fear for the lactose-intolerant – but Leonardo DiCaprio is pretty game, even though it’s now clear that everything here is pitched at an assaultive level of melodrama that would even have Douglas Sirk swooning. There’s a sequence where Gatsby, anxious to impress, organises afternoon tea for Daisy at Nick’s house and over-eggs the occasion with flowers, frosted wedding cake towers and tiers of macaroons. “You think it’s too much,” he asks Nick. “I think it’s what you want,” says Nick, on behalf of the audience.
In this cacophonous overproduction, it’s the quieter notes that resonate. Elizabeth Debicki is pretty striking as Daisy’s soignée pal, and in the book she and Nick have an affair. No time for that in Luhrmann’s film, however, so she’s allowed to drop out of sight, unfortunately. Eventually, when all four of the leads get together in a hotel room, the film finally shuts up for a bit and, not uncoincidentally, finds an emotional grip.
There’s much to admire in the sweep of this Gatsby, but much to resent as well. This is a young adult fiction Gatsby for the inattentive. At one point Nick even overexplains Prohibition to his old doctor, who somehow doesn’t interrupt to say: “But I know, Nick. I was there.”
On general release