Word has thus far been middling for this new Gatsby adaptation, and so it was with fairly low expectations that I entered the theatre for Baz Luhrmann’s latest in a line of hysterically musical, visually caffeinated masterpieces of gaudy melodrama that began with Strictly Ballroom in 1992, continued with Romeo & Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge (2002) and finally ground to something of a critical halt with his 2008 offering, Australia. Perhaps then, it is with something to prove that Luhrmann returns to the fray, firing all on cylinders: a classic (if not the classic) American novel, a predictably eclectic soundtrack (Kanye, Jay Z, Jack White, Lana Del Ray) and of course his biggest gun, Leonardo Dicaprio.
DiCaprio is on fire here. He’s absolutely in the prime of the midsummer period of a career that, thanks in part to several collaborations with Martin Scorcese, must be approaching unparalleled heights in terms of box office and critical kudos. He’s perfect in this role, even eclipsing Robert Redford’s 1974 turn as Gatsby. He is exactly what Gatsby should be: dazzling, impenetrable and yet hopelessly broken. At 38, Dicaprio is still impossibly boyish-looking – the wear has only started to show, and he couldn’t have played this broken-hearted 32-year-old war veteran ten or even five years earlier. Surely this is the DiCaprio that Scorsese should have waited for to star in his Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004). He shares the screen with Tobey Maguire who, at 36, sports a youthful appearance that is equally deceptive. As Nick Carraway, Maguire’s trademark awkward is the perfect foil to DiCaprio’s awesome.
For those who are unfamiliar with the narrative, Carraway is the vehicle through which we experience Gatsby’s enigma. Arriving in New York from the Midwest, Nick is a failed writer seeking his fortune as a stockbroker on Wall Street during the boom of the 1920s. He finds himself in a coastal residence next to a mysterious neighbour who throws lavish parties for the crème of New York high society. Across the bay lives Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Mulligan) with her husband and daughter. Soon after visiting his beautiful relative, Carraway is invited to one of Gatsby’s decadent soirees. He soon finds that these two seemingly unrelated events are anything but …
The film suffers from a classic pitfall of literary adaptations: the voiceover. There’s oodles of it here, to the point that dramatic story beats are reduced to narrative join-the-dots. Still, there’s plenty of story to squeeze in, so much so that one wishes there were less – but economy is the name of Luhrmann’s game, and it’s hard not to admire his (and co-writer Craig Pierce’s) deft manoeuvring through Fitzgerald’s novel, rejecting nuance and sub-plot, preferring to charge straight for the jugular of this tragic romance. The only thing that gets in Luhrmann’s path is Luhrmann himself: all the trappings we’ve come to associate with his particular brand of ‘spectacular, spectacular’ seem perfectly matched to the period but at odds with this, a distinctly more reflective, mature emotional landscape.
Notably Gatsby is, if not new territory, then a progression for a filmmaker who was seemingly content to perpetually remake the same film: boy meets girl with seemingly insurmountable differences in background, class or breeding. It seems that here he may have heeded Carraway’s warning to Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past.” While ‘true love’ remains centre stage, with class and breeding still prevalent issues in Gatsby, the insurmountable entity is time: boy met girl, but lost her years ago. If Moulin Rouge was a fabulously drunken question, The Great Gatsby comes as the crushingly sober reply.
The Great Gatsby (11)
Dir: Baz Luhrmann; US drama/romance, 2013, 142 mins; Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Gemma Ward, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan
Premiered May 16