All that glitters – The Great Gatsby review

The Great Gatsby

By Simon Miraudo
May 30, 2013

That Baz Luhrmann is incorrigible. When struck by inspiration, he’ll stop at nothing to bring his preposterous film concepts to life. Be it a baroque pop tribute to France’s most famous bordello, a three-hour romantic epic set in Australia’s sun-scorched desert, or a 3-D, hip-hop infused adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, it will make its way to the screen, such is his enthusiasm as a filmmaker/event planner. He’ll keep on tilting at windmills – or chasing waterfalls, should you be more familiar with R&B hits than classic literature, as I suspect Luhrmann might be – and you can either buy the ticket and take the ride, or sit on the sidelines counting receipts and wondering just how much exactly the Aussie taxpayer ponied up for his latest clusterbaz.

And so, naysayers be damned, his big budget reinvention of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby came to pass. Questions linger in the air as to who paid for what – there were rumours that the director even sold his Sydney home to foot part of the bill – but that kind of speculative bean-counting ultimately has no place here. The money – much like Jay Gatsby’s own riches – may be of curious origins, but the movie itself is as distracting and entertaining as one of Jay’s extravagant shindigs. A delirious, dazzling, and vivacious number, it is. (I should say here that I have always been willing to play Sancho Panza to Luhrmann’s Don Quixote; the Chilli to his T-Boz.)

The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald’s text is an easily digestible one, requiring about as many sittings to complete as The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Yet, it’s influence can be felt today, and we can find contemporaries of its central character in Mad Men’s Don Draper, Spring Breakers’ Alien, and real-life’s Jay-Z (fittingly, he executive produced the soundtrack). Leonardo DiCaprio is gifted the plum role of Jay Gatsby in this 2013 take. As the mysterious millionaire holed up in a luxurious West Egg abode, he exudes the requisite, natural charisma expected of such an enigmatic gent; once reunited with his long-lost love, flibbertigibbet Daisy (an elegant, but tic-heavy Carey Mulligan), out spills Leo’s manic, goofy, boyish charm.

Tobey Maguire, a likable actor unencumbered by screen presence, takes on the role of narrator Nick Carraway. Nick heads to New York at the end of the Great War, inadvertently renting a modest house next to Gatsby’s mansion. He visits his cousin Daisy and her brutish husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, built like an olde-timey pugilist) across the bay in East Egg, catching the eye of feisty flapper Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) in the process. It’s a baptism of fire for the newly returned war vet, who’s first sucked into a night of drunken debauchery with Tom and his mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher), before scoring an invite to one of his neighbour’s flamboyant parties. There he finds politicians, celebrities, socialites, and wealthy criminals reveling in mad hedonism; it’s kind of like Project X for the 1922 crowd. Gomorrah was obliterated for less.

The Great Gatsby

Gatsby eventually reveals himself, aided by typical Baz-like flourishes (in this instance, quite literally fireworks). A fast friend, Jay asks Nick to put in a good word to Daisy on his behalf, and orchestrates an afternoon tea between the three of them. Seems they have a past, and Nick is more than happy to oblige. If only he had eyes as observant as those of obsolete oculist T.J. Eckleburg; he might have seen the tragedy waiting for them all further down the road.

The story is outrageously famous and familiar, so it’s a testament to Luhrmann that he can make it live and breathe on the screen almost 100 years after it was first published (not that the book has lost any of its vibrancy). Luhrmann is so intoxicated by its famous final passages, he literally spells them out on screen. He gets a pass on this usually awful trope because, well, it’s arguably the finest few sentences ever penned. Fitzgerald’s still-biting social satire is mostly stripped away, despite some choice cuts from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne doing a brilliant job of skewering opulence on their own. Instead, the tragic tale of Jay and Daisy takes center stage. Though Luhrmann might have mistaken Fitzgerald’s predilection for party scenes as an opportunity to fire his glitter canons – rather than to spoof the outrageous culture of the era –  he does get Jay Gatsby. As a portrait of a man unwilling to let go of the past, and obsessed with a future that, as Fitzgerald puts it, “was already behind him,” it’s potent.

The Great Gatsby

To many, Baz the Great and Powerful is little more than a false prophet hidden behind a curtain, frantically pulling at levers and bamboozling his audience with pretty, empty pyrotechnics. One of his tricks this time around is the addition of 3-D, meaning our protagonists all appear removed from their environments. Intentional or otherwise, this works to the picture’s benefit. It looks like a half-remembered dream, recalled by a drunk from the distant, chilly isolation of a sanatorium (because it is). Nick’s recollection of his time with Gatsby feels warm, extra-terrestrial, and impossible. The Great Gatsby will always belong to F. Scott Fitzgerald, just as Romeo and Juliet will always belong to Shakespeare. Luhrmann, with great respect to the originals, finds a way to make them his own. Whether one thinks it a folly or not, we’ll never see another Great Gatsby like the one Baz Luhrmann has magicked up.

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

The Great Gatsby is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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