James Dempsey: Luhrman misses the point by making a spectacle of Gatsby
Finding new and improved ways to fail to film an unfilmable novel has never stopped anyone before, and Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s decent stab at rendering Jay Gatsby great is probably the best of the titular character’s five film incarnations.
Perhaps a better adjective to this version of the film is grand, both in terms of the scope of its lavish production values, and as defined in Hiberno-English as nothing to get too excited about.
The Great Gatsby has always proved difficult to transition from page to screen, simply because most filmmakers don’t seem to realise that the magnetism of the novel is found in the pattern of the prose and not the twisting of the plot.
In 1949, director Elliott Nugent was so fraught with the weight of adapting Fitzgerald’s masterpiece that he came close to suicide, nearly throwing himself off the 10th floor fire-escape of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. Twenty-five years later and even Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from The Godfather, struggled to adapt a script worthy of this great American novel. Terrified by the ordeal, the legendary filmmaker took to lifting lines from Fitzgerald’s other works, in the hope of striking the right tone. The result: 1974’s stylish adaptation, remembered as plodding and clunky, with a terribly miscast Robert Redford.
What fresh take, then, can Luhrmann have on the man in the cool, beautiful shirts? A filmmaker renowned for his love of visual pomp and splendour, this Gatsby’s world surrounds the cast with a stylised world of decadent artifice. It’s all smoke and mirrors, but the wafting tendrils of pixelated soot and the faceted-crystals in the monogrammed looking glass have never looked quite so good. And while the glittery revelry sizzles as the bootlegged booze flows, the CGI rendering of Long Island actually works comfortably with the story’s tones of moneyed trickery and deception.
Add to that the jazz-infused score from Bryan Ferry and a revised contemporary soundtrack from hip-hop impresario Jay-Z, and the parallels of 1920s’ flapper exuberance to a pre-credit crisis indulgence are immediately comparable. It turns out greed transcends generations – quelle surprise, old sport.
But this is Luhrmann’s shtick, forcing classics into modernity, whether taking Romeo and Juliet to the streets or spinning the classic Hollywood musical on its head with modern pop music hits.
Why this has always been deemed so ground breaking is a mystery; the Jets and the Sharks took the Montagues and the Capulets to the streets long before Luhrmann gave DiCaprio a handgun. Regardless, we’re here for the spectacle, and here Luhrmann excels in bacchanalia so lavishly razzle-dazzled that you can expect invitations to disappointing Gatsby shindigs for at least a year. It may be time to invest in a boater.
Indeed it’s this spectacle that has made the film a hit, as despite cool reviews in the American press, it opened last week as Luhrmann’s best start ever, and by last Tuesday had become his highest grossing film in the US to date. The worst-case scenario from industry insiders is now a US haul of $120m in box office, which for a romantic drama is actually very strong. It turns out that while superheroes still pack a punch and theatres to the tune of a billion dollars, the appeal of watching the spectacle of exceedingly rich schemers can do tidy business too.
Although the spectacle of Luhrmann’s Gatsby fizzles out in the second hour, much as it has to, given the development of the narrative, this version will serve as a reminder to studios that spectacle is perhaps the reason why we still go to the movies. Five adaptations later, and Gatsby’s still not great. He’s eluded us before, but that’s no matter – future versions will party harder, in 3D scope that stretches further. The cool beautiful shirts will be ever crisper. And the directors will still fail to understand that it’s prose before clothes.
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