“I’m really looking forward to The Great Gatsby movie, because I’ve always loved the book but felt it needed a song by Fergie.”
– Billy Eichner from Funny or Die
There’s a really famous scene in Martin Scorsese’s classic mob saga GoodFellas in which Ray Liotta takes Lorraine Bracco to the Copacabana on their first date. Rather than wait in line and go through the front entrance, Liotta takes her in through the exit. What transpires is a three-minute tracking shot of the two of them winding through the back hallways and kitchen only to end up with front row seats for a Henny Youngman show. All the while, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound plays on the soundtrack (“Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals). Scorsese has always been a great visual stylist, but the Copacabana tracking shot is especially nifty.
I read an interview with Scorsese a couple of years ago and he spoke of that sequence. Scorsese said the whole goal of the tracking shot was to help tell the story visually. The entire shot is Liotta’s character going through a series of doors. Scorsese said his aim was to illustrate for the audience how the young mobster was going through many doors of opportunity and upward mobility in organized crime. So, it’s not just really cool looking, it’s also visually relevant to the story being told.
Sometimes, I wish Baz Lurhmann could tell the difference.
There’s no question that director Luhrmann is also a great visual artist. It’s just that frequently his use of flashy film technique does not work to help tell the story visually. Zooming camera moves exist just because they look cool. There frequently isn’t a sense the visual razzle dazzle is there to help service the story. Baz Luhrmann never met a glitter bomb he didn’t like.
And, I generally like his work in spite of some of its more over-the-top indulgences. I mostly like his Romeo + Juliet, and I’m a pretty big overall supporter of Moulin Rouge. Both of those films have a typical tendency to be too much at times, but they are truly cinematic experiences and they mostly work dramatically when they need to most. The tango sequence in Moulin Rouge is truly stunning and worth the price of admission all by itself; however, I thought his western Australia with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman was a bad fit for him in terms of the material, and the movie is completely dreadful and unwatchable.
Now, he’s back with The Great Gatsby, the umpteenth film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, one of the great pieces of American literature. He’s also reuniting with his Romeo as Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the titular role of Jay Gatsby. Did I mention it’s in 3D, just as I’m sure Fitzgerald would have imagined a screen version of his book to be? I’m a pretty neutral guy when it comes to the modern use of 3D in movies. When a great director like Scorsese or Ang Lee or James Cameron utilizes it, the depth of field effect can be striking and enhance the storytelling. Hugo especially was a beautiful film. Cameron is kind of the P.T. Barnum of modern 3D, and I don’t know that I agree when he says every movie would be enhanced by 3D technology. But, a film version of a classic novel about a doomed romance among the social elites in the Roaring Twenties should be a pretty good test to Cameron’s theory. And, like Scorsese, Lee, and others, Luhrmann is enough of an artist to do right by the technology.
The good news is that this iteration of Gatsby definitely has a pulse and is gorgeous to look at; the bad news is that it’s often dramatically inert. This is odd coming from a director whose films so frequently spill over into melodrama.
DiCaprio is actually a great choice for Gatsby; he brings a lot more layering to the role than Robert Redford did in the 1974 version most of us saw in high school. DiCaprio is one of those actors that can be placed into any time period and it just works. He can believably be in the old west or the 1950s or, most famously, die on the Titanic and be totally at ease. He’s also that rare breed, a full-on movie star with character actor chops. The same can’t be said for Tobey Maguire, who very much struggles to find a pulse as Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator. There’s something about the time period and Nick’s inherent naivete that just doesn’t work. Maguire seems too modern and sophisticated for the part, and his line readings (much of the dialogue has been wisely lifted straight from the book) are oddly stilted. Carey Mulligan is fine as Daisy, though a little flat. She has the requisite beauty, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out why Gatsby has gone to such lengths to win her back. She seems like kind of a drip. You could argue, though, that that’s the point; that Gatsby is so stuck in reliving the past that he doesn’t realize that Daisy isn’t all that interesting or worth the trouble. For my money, Joel Edgerton steals the movie as Daisy’s philandering husband Tom Buchanan. Edgerton does great work here filling in Tom’s inherent sense of entitlement while also being suspicious of a self-made tycoon like Gatsby. There’s a terrific scene in the film’s second half where spending a hot summer day in a Manhattan hotel suite boils over emotionally into all the characters revealing their deepest secrets. In the past couple of years, Edgerton has been great in Warrior and Zero Dark Thirty. I’m very interested to see what he does next.
Like he did in Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann isn’t all that interested in realistically recreating the time period he’s playing in. He’s again using contemporary music to create an emotional sense of time and place rather than a historically accurate one. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but it can be wearying. There’s no doubt that the parties Gatsby throws as a means of attracting Daisy to his home are spectacularly staged. There are hundreds of extras dressed to the nines, confetti, and a river of booze. There’s no doubt that one of Luhrmann’s great collaborators is his wife, Catherine Martin, who is also his costume and set designer. A two-time Oscar winner for Moulin Rouge, she’s outdone herself here as this Gatsby looks fantastic. As they say, the money is all up there on the screen.
Weirdly, I thought Luhrmann really dropped the ball with the swimming pool scene at the end. It’s badly staged and very coldly played. His double suicide moment in Romeo + Juliet packed a great emotional punch, this not so much.
The Great Gatsby isn’t a bad film, but your enjoyment of it will likely be tempered by how much of Luhrmann’s visual ticks you can deal with. For instance, if an establishing shot in which the camera zooms down the length of the Empire State Building to frame Tobey Maguire as he walks down the street sounds good to you, I think you’ll be okay. If it makes you roll your eyes, proceed with caution. I know several people who utterly despise Moulin Rouge, and I think they’d be wise to avoid this completely. There’s no doubt this is a visually stunning film, very handsomely crafted. There are even some nicely handle 3D effects. It just left me a little cold dramatically.