Baz Luhrmann is an acquired taste. He is a director who isn’t shy about over-embellishing his films with extravagant visual delights and audacious use of modern music that either clicks with you or doesn’t. Yet, whereas most filmmakers have a nasty tendency to let their own stylistic excesses overtake their productions, Luhrmann’s vision often compliments the story at hand.
His latest feature, The Great Gatsby, is no different and exactly what most have come to expect from the audacious filmmaker, but whether or not that is a good thing depends squarely on you. Read the full review after the break.
When Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to 1920’s New York as an aspiring bonds broker, little did he know that he had moved next door to the most infamous recluse in town, the mysterious and very wealthy J. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Constantly throwing parties where the entire city is welcome to indulge themselves as he hides away in his giant castle estate, Gatsby takes a surprising interest in his new neighbor Nick and befriends the very impressionable young man from out of state.
After spinning endless tall tales about his life that couldn’t possibly be true, Gatsby finally divulges his true intent by inquiring with Nick about setting up an afternoon tea with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who just so happens to be married to the very well off Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). As Gatsby tries to court Daisy away from her womanizing husband, secrets are revealed about their assorted history that threatens to ruin all their lives.
Director Baz Luhrmann certainly likes his tragic love stories. From his 1996 Romeo & Juliet adaptation to his 2001 musical extravaganza Moulin Rouge and now with The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann has not only shown his affinity towards such poignant love stories time and time again but also why he is the right man for the job. His vision of 1920’s era New York is at once familiar and foreign with often lavish decor mixed with contemporary musical ballads that juxtapose with the material in only a way he can manage to pull off.
While there are likely those out there that won’t be able to look past his trademark flamboyant production design, there is no denying the power of the material itself and the stable of talented actors he has assembled for one of the years most breathtakingly gorgeous and emotionally gripping films. Although the jury is still out on whether it was a wise decision to push the film from its previous Christmas 2012 holiday release date to a summer 2013 release date, what isn’t up for debate is just how darn well this film was crafted from beginning to end.
Now, like most of Luhrmann’s productions, the first 20 to 30 minutes is a bit of a learning curve. If you have never experienced one of his films before this then you are either in for a glorious visual treat akin to taking copious amounts of illegal narcotics or you will walk away highly confused and frustrated. It’s not so much that the audience needs time to adjust as it is that Luhrmann just sort of throws things at his viewers at an almost relentless pace right out the gate leaving almost no time for the audience to catch its breath.
After those initial moments, however, things begin to calm down quite drastically which leads into the second possible pitfall of the film, it’s love story. Simply put, unless you have bought into these characters by this point what transpires for the remaining couple of hours will either entrance you or bore you. But mostly in thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel from which this film is based and Luhrmann’s more than capable star studded cast, buying into anything the film is selling you will be one of the easiest purchases you will ever make. This is a love story of such immense power and tragedy that it is difficult not to get swept up into Gatsby’s personal mission to win back the woman he loved but lost long ago.
Reuniting with his Romeo & Juliet star Leonardo DiCaprio, Luhrmann evokes one of the most complex performances of DiCaprio’s career. The actor has been aging gracefully into more distinguished roles over the past decade and one can’t help but find him as a perfect fit for the role of Gatsby. Confident, dashing and extremely charismatic, he exudes the charm and grace one would associate with an aristocratic individual such as Gatsby. But there is this hurt or pain buried deep beneath that grandiose veneer which DiCaprio keeps just below the surface of every scene that leaves the audience on edge.
The rest of the cast is just as impressive with Tobey Maguire leading the charge as our main character and narrator. Returning to the limelight and successfully removing the stigma that was Spider-man 3 is no easy task but he comes out swinging. While his performance feels just a tad bit awkward and silly at first, he really comes into his own later on when things take a more serious turn.
Carey Mulligan is just simply adorable as Daisy, the sparkle in Gatsby’s eye and his sole reason for accomplishing everything he has done. Mulligan’s natural captivating presence is a double edged sword that works well in the character’s favor as we discover along with Nick that she is far from a saint and is guilty of some truly selfish desires that eventually hurt those who love and care about her the most. Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s cheating husband Tom Buchanan makes for an appropriately despicable villainous type but isn’t given much to do beyond being consistently suspicious and menacing towards Gatsby.
Likewise, the remaining supporting cast are all fine in their respective roles but don’t have much of an impact unfortunately. Elizabeth Debicki as Joan is a lively character that would have been nice to see more of but becomes less and less important as we move forward and thus we see less and less of her. As for Isla Fisher who plays Myrtle, she has only one scene of any true importance that lacks any real impact due to how little screen time she received prior. These aren’t necessarily complaints but more observations on how some of these characters, despite how interesting they seemed, just didn’t leave much of an impression.
But then there are the two most significant characters of any Baz Luhrmann production, the visuals and music. Many directors have a signature style or tone to their films that are rather difficult to notice due mostly in part to their subtlety. Luhrmann isn’t subtle at all, as a matter of fact he is clearly in the ranks of Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams, filmmakers whose style and tone are thrown right in your face and just like the films they have made, his new film may also be a little hard to digest for some…at first.
As mentioned, the first 30 minutes or so of The Great Gatsby is like being caught up in a whirlwind of vibrant colors, intense editing and sweeping camera movements that whisk us away to new locations every minute or so. Then when you add in the 3D element (which is actually quite striking), what was once figuratively in your face is now literally in it. But once we get past all the introductory scenes things begin to settle down quite substantially.
Instead of feeling rushed through everything, we finally get some much needed downtime with each of the characters and that is when the majesty of Luhrmann’s visual style truly peaks. Once we build that connection with out characters and get invested in their stories, the visuals only add to the narrative at hand and in a very rare occurrence we find ourselves with a solid story and a densely imaginative visual palette that compliment each other rather well.
While not nearly as overbearing as his hyper kinetic visual style can get, his musical choices can be just as alarming and distracting than anything we actually see. Music plays a big role in all of his films and they can either enhance or detract from the overall package depending on how those choices pan out. Often eschewing whatever music came out of the era his stories take place in, his bold decision to stick a Lana Del Ray, Jay Z or Beyonce music number into a 1920’s setting instead of injecting the expected ragtime tunes into the mix is often invigorating and always interesting. While not quite as successful as his past features (some of the musical numbers here just don’t gel with what is on screen), it is certainly more hit than miss and once again adds that signature Luhrmann vibe to the whole production.
That’s what it all essentially comes down to, however. It may sound a bit unfair to judge an entire film simply by the style of the director, but in this case that is the only wild card. The story itself is considered to be one of the greatest love stories ever told and the cast is filled to the brim with talent, but unless you can either accept Baz Luhrmann’s decidedly ostentatious tendencies and his self indulgent need to take everything to the extreme, or you will likely come away from The Great Gatsby feeling disappointed or at the very least underwhelmed.
So, coming from someone who has never read the novel and never seen the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola adaptation, but is a fan of the director’s previous works, it is difficult to assess how this new vision by that crazy Australian Baz Luhrmann stacks up against them. That being said, if you are on board with Luhrmann’s visual and auditory sensibilities, then anyone who is unfamiliar with the story (like myself) will find a lot to love about the film and any fans of Luhrmann’s will want to soak in all the many splendors that we have come to expect from that immensely talented filmmaker.