Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Great Gatsby


If you’re going to make Gatsby for the third time (actually, fifth, but the first one is lost and the second is unavailable), you must think you have something new to bring to the story that many call the Great American Novel. Baz Luhrmann is a crazy Aussie, and I love him. He has made only five films so far, and three of them are seriously twisted in one way or another. (Ways that I like, I should add.) They are Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge. Only his fourth film, Australia, tells a more or less conventional story in a normal way.

What he brings to this production is his grand, operatic vision, and it mostly works very well. This time it’s in 3D, too. And though we saw it in 2D, it was clear that we were swooping and swirling around a lot and would have been vertiginous here and there … but actually, those sort of camera moves have always been present in his work. Now, there are many, many directors that I only wish they would nail their cameras in place, like Woody Allen does, because they suck at it. But not Baz. It all works for me in his films.

The costume designer and production designer should get Oscar nominations next year, because it is all visually just way beyond stunning. The water between Gatsby’s place and the Buchanan’s and the land surrounding it is rendered almost like a Monet painting. The dazzling shots of Broadway and other New York settings just took my breath away. And even the awful road between West Egg and Manhattan, the “Valley of Ashes,” is incredible to behold.

The first part of the story is tailor-made for his way of filming, because the parties at Jay Gatsby house are the very definition of wretched excess. It’s impossible to make them too big, too lavish, too decadent. That was the whole point of the things; this was what up-from-nothing Gatsby thought would lure and impress his beloved Daisy. And believe me, you’ve never seen anything in the Hollywood epics of the ‘50s to equal this, in ancient Rome, Cleopatra’s Egypt, the Palace of Versailles, or Sodom and Gomorrah. These were parties, man! They were thrown in a mansion that makes San Simeon look like a roadside orange juice stand, a building that had more on common with Hogwarts than anything else. (In the Wiki article on the book, there is a picture of a mansion that was said to have inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald, and by golly, it looks very much like the CGI structure Baz has created for this film.)

I have the great advantage of never having read the book, so I don’t know if this deviated much from it (Lee, who has read it, says no, it didn’t.) I did see the Redford/Farrow/Dern version, and this seems very similar.

The grand scale of it gets you into the story, but as it goes along and Gatsby stops throwing money around, it settles down into a real tragedy. Leo da Cap is a good Gatsby, such a tragic and likeable man, and Carey Mulligan (one of those damn Brits who can be totally convincing as an American) is good as Daisy, though maybe not as ethereal as Mia Farrow. Tobey McGuire is suitable as Nick, the poor go-between, better than Sam Waterston was, in my opinion. But Joel Edgerton just can’t reach the crazed, weird menace of Bruce Dern. Not that he’s bad, but he’s not as good.

I enjoyed it a lot. One thing that might jar some is the music. It’s all over the place, and none of it is Roaring ‘20s jazz. Nary a bar of the Charleston. The music ranges from Beethoven to Gershwin to really thumping rap and techno-pop and house and hip-hop and stuff I don’t even know the name for. It was a little disquieting at first, but I quickly got into it. It was party-hard music, and it would fit in the Elizabethan court as well as a club on Sunset Strip, if the people there were really getting’ down. In a way, it made it timeless for me, in a way that Le Jazz Hot would not have. But if you think that’s wildly inappropriate, you should probably skip this one.