Cannes 2013 Review – The Great Gatsby

When word came out that Baz Luhrmann's next film would be an adaptation of The Great Gatsby (the fourth such adaptation for the big screen), there was much grumbling among the fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic tale. Not exactly known for the plummeting depth of his films, he was declared all wrong as a director to take on this yarn, one of the Great American Novels. Not being American, I had never read the book, but after news broke that Luhrmann's version would open the Cannes Film Festival, I decided to give it a try. And after reading, I actually thought Luhrmann an interesting choice to tackle this material. To be fair, plotwise the novel is quite lacking, a somewhat shallow tale of lost and doomed love, framed in the 'Roaring Twenties' (of course, most of the aspects that allude to them in the book were only roaring for the kind of people who populate Fitzgerald's novel, i.e. the upper class), with a severe lack of characterization in most, if not all, of its main players. What makes the novel rise above mediocrity, though, is its evocative prose (Fitzgerald was quite the wordsmith), and the strong feeling of the milieu's emptiness and shallowness with which the writer managed to permeate the final act. Luhrmann, not a stranger to shallowness and emptiness himself, could be the perfect director, with his 'style over substance' approach not necessarily a bad way to tackle the novel. If he could manage to capture the sadness down the home stretch that makes the novel end on such a high note, perhaps not in terms of resolve, but certainly in terms of literary value, he would validate his choice.

Unfortunately, Luhrmann didn't seem too interested in that reading, skipping too fast through the final parts of the story, taking the sting right out of Fitzgerald's social commentary. With that, the film sadly fizzles out where, perhaps not surprisingly given its director, it dazzled before. Save a shot or two, the 3-D doesn't really bring anything to the table, but Luhrmann shows he does not need it to create excitement of the highest order. His recreation of the parties at the Gatsby mansion tops anything he did in Moulin Rouge!  Interestingly, in these sequences the anachronistic use of music works really well (far better than the original, more typical score does in the quieter scenes). There is a short scene on the Queensboro Bridge using a Jay-Z (one of the film's executive producers) track, where the amalgamation of Luhrmann's style and anachronisms culminates in an ecstatic five-second throwaway moment that was perhaps the best one of the film.

But outside his usual stylistic choices, which, as hoped and expected, completely fit the film's earlier scenes, the director made one bold move that really paid off: he decided to frame the story by having Nick Carraway actually writing it as a form of therapy (not straying too far from the novel here), which leads to a lot of voice over work by Tobey Maguire lifting prose straight from the novel, and a good deal of visual representation of said prose in the form of the actual words from Carraway's typewriter floating onto the screen. This gives Luhrmann a chance to incorporate the best aspect of the novel, Fitzgerald's evocative use of language, in the film. To many it may seem too artificial a choice, but for me it worked really well.

As far as the acting goes, The Great Gatsby rests firmly on the back of Leonardo DiCaprio's wide-ranging performance as the title character. DiCaprio excels in showing Gatsby's doubts and anxieties, and his insecurities about his relationship with Daisy, the lost object of his desire. Carey Mulligan as Daisy loses a little bit too much of the aloofness of the character in the book, and is a bit too doe-eyed to make her abandonment of Gatsby at the end hit home, but it is not Mulligan's fault, the fault is in the writing. Where the script really fails though is in the central character of Nick Carraway. A cipher in the book, a sort of moral guide in the lives of these East Coast socialites (and an alter ego of the writer), in the film he is a wide-eyed admirer of his wealthy neighbor. All criticism, all commentary is gone. It doesn't help that Maguire is not a strong enough actor to sell the character, with facial expressions that range from comical to awkward. Other characters are flattened or trivialized (Elizabeth Debicki's Jordan Baker especially gets the short stick), but do not affect the adaptation negatively. A special mention should be made of the phenomenal art direction and costume work by Baz Luhrmann's wife, Catherine Martin, who manages to evoke the glamour of the '20s in an elaborate, over-the-top way, without getting in the way of the story.

Which, in the end, is probably the biggest problem of the film: the story just isn't good enough. As Michael Ward noted in his wonderful and original analysis yesterday, the core of the film is a rather banal melodrama. Luhrmann has managed to create an enjoyable, if somewhat empty, spectacle out of it, but the fears of some that this novel might be unfilmable turn out to be partly true.