There’s hardly a need for histrionic critical bewilderment at the final unveiling of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby as anything other than a violent assault on the senses (and, to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, good sense). The trailer – featuring Frank Ocean’s croons over revellers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in an open-top saloon – was a proud manifesto of intent; a pre-emptive defensive statement against the book’s ardent disciples. Now, the film itself has descended from some alien planet and onto the earth which it claims to portray; the end result rightly delivers on the trailers’ promise, proud to be loud, bestowed in high-end wrapping paper with a shiny bow on top and clawing at our eyeballs through three edgy dimensions.
We knew exactly what to anticipate; the film declines to provoke thought, truly stir our human emotions or have us shoot upright and sincerely ponder, “Now, that’s a bold trick.” This is unmistakably a Baz Luhrmann production and not, as some would construe it, an adaptation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel –and one of the greatest novels of the 20th century – The Great Gatsby. This is how it should be; too often we fault film adaptations that too closely follow the plot developments of their source material, sacrificing any semblance of an authorial signature for the sake of satisfying a marginal core fanbase. Here, Luhrmann plays exclusively to his own fanbase while somehow indulging only himself. He is our Gatsby, luring us inside a lavish Hollywood dreamscape in which nuance is the greatest nuisance, and reflection on the American Dream – as rooted in the novel – is overlooked in favour of an infatuation over an infatuation.
Luhrmann’s camera is utterly ensconced with Leonardo Dicaprio’s Gatsby; more than that, its entire mobility is devoted to the unrequited, almost divine holy bond between him and Daisy (Carey Mulligan), with narrator and fish-out-of-water Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) firmly categorised as the third wheel. Tom Buchanan is portrayed as nothing less than an objectively obstructive presence, though Joel Edgerton duly sinks his teeth into a playful role requiring curmudgeonly exemption across from Gatsby’s congenial faux-aristocrat persona. DiCaprio and Mulligan never seem completely comfortable in their borrowed lives – Leo looks to have spent many a late night in front of a mirror practising his flat ‘old sport’ addendum – and the cursory manner in which they spout lines as if perfunctory script-reciters conjures a wave effect on all bodies attending the film’s many opulent soirees, amassed like well-dressed extras occupying an expensive stage set.
The bashes are as good excuse as any for Luhrmann to unleash the full majesty of his expansive production design, and the defining quality aspect of his entire oeuvre. The costumes are varied and gleaming, flanked by architecture beyond even Fitzgerald’s wildest imagination. Confetti falls from the sky like an unending downpour of rainfall, drenching its revellers in decadence.
A party is likewise energised by its playlist, and so Jay-Z’s bizarre soundtrack inserts itself into the loudest occasions – and, jarringly, the softer moments – to ensure every recruited artist makes it into the final runtime regardless of whether their song fits accordingly. Kanye West rapping ‘This is something like the holocaust’ over a raucous 1920s apartment gathering is one particularly bemusing anachronistic choice.
But again, we can scarcely feign surprise. Luhrmann has his own preoccupations with the source material, and anyone with their own predisposal to auteurist thought should thusly judge the film’s merit on whether the director succeeds in accomplishing his idiosyncratic ravaging of these literary icons. Well, he does, but not without a considerable degree of tyranny.
Luhrmann retains his fierce, controlling intent throughout; it’s embedded in the constant cuts, a succession of violent flits from shot to shot with no singular image lingering for more than a few seconds in which to admire its artfulness. The only true movement of the camera is confined to fast tracks, zooms and ascending panoramas of the bay, together with that symbolic green light shining dutifully in the far reaches.
There’s the insulting deal-breaker. These lightning edits are Luhrmann’s way of shoving us toward what we need to next, stopping short of physically grabbing our head and wrenching it to the overriding point of interest. Because the discourse is inherently one-sided, the viewer has no agency or entry point at which to fully engage with the film. It’s a mad rush, not unlike the feeling of attending one of the film’s parties and having a veritable onslaught of lush visual stimuli assail from all angles.
In this sense, we are Nick Carraway, and this film is our party. Luhrmann likes to think of himself as Gatsby, though his art is lacking in all of the virtues ascribed to its titular lead. Did Gatsby have such a flagrant disregard for Carraway’s intelligence, as Luhrmann does with ours? The Great Gatsby is a gaudy, overlong assembly line of elusive luxury, nostalgically retreating into the distant past by way of a remote cinema screen, designed solely to hypnotise and induce awe. Those easily seduced by the superficial glow of gold and streaming confetti will fall in love with its diversions.