I never expected Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” to feel understated, but it’s almost demure at times. While busy and jumped-up, it’s as much about trappings of luxe, the secret life of brands. (The brands include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay-Z, Tiffany & Co., Miu Miu, Prada, Brooks Brothers, Fogal of Switzerland, Moët & Chandon, and of course, Baz Luhrmann.) Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio: none of this trio of dreamers, schemers, adulterers and enablers feels like a grown-up, only playacting children rather than Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Daisy Buchanan. (Even DiCaprio’s pronounced laugh lines fail to make him seem Gatsby’s age of thirty-two.) But Gatsby’s mannered way of speaking, a made-up accent of uncertain and variable provenance, is annoying, transparent and wholly appropriate. As is our introduction to the elusive Gatsby’s full face, gleaming and golden and fireworks-festooned like the most grandiloquent Suntory whiskey ad ever storyboarded. Such freighted momentousness is endless, the acting erratic, sapping even Mulligan’s sorrowful kitten-cum-coquette intonations of quiet despair. (When she murmurs of Gatsby and his “perfect irresistible imagination,” Luhrmann seems to be speaking to himself.) Maguire’s voiceover is mewly, suiting his look as a milky, milk-fed twelve-year-old. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce added a framing, with Nick composing the novel as an exercise suggested by his doctor in an asylum. (In those scenes, you can tell time has passed: Nick’s floppy forelock is more sculptured and has more volume.) As he writes or types, words inscribe the space between us and the screen, a touch as much Tony Scott as Peter Greenaway, calligraphy flowering and foundering to smoke and smudge. The film’s one consistent live wire is actress Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker—electric, wide-eyed, seeming alert to the potential caprice in any instant. She’s the only character not to be caught in a pout. The most romantic image is the ineffable angel’s-eye view floating over lower Manhattan, seen several times from miles on high in a cloudless sky. Curiously, the placement is from a perspective familiar from post-9/11 imagery: the eye instinctively shifts to the left and searches for the Towers that wouldn’t be built for another five decades to come. Of course, at street level, the corners of the wide frames are doodled with dirigibles. More touching than the undifferentiated confusion of the animated city streets is a moment early on when the computer animation rises slightly over the flat plains of Long Island briefly revealing the metropolis beyond as a lip of fierce, silent electric illumination. Gatsby’s palatial Xanadu, seen from the distance like a Disney World castle rising from the swamp that is of Orlando, is largely conveyed through a single space alongside a swimming pool, throbbing with dozens of dancing extras. Luhrmann treats the interior spaces as proscenium, moving forward and back instead of sculpting space. Could it have been bigger, louder, sweller, like a castle in Marrakesh instead of a soundstage in Sydney? Now, Fritz Lang making a 3D Gatsby: dream on. There are no mirrors for Luhrmann’s Gatsby, his only reflection the world he’s made. The exterior world is conveyed in streaks of motion, gaudy cars rushing against ribbons of overpopulated digital cartoon space. Stanley Kauffmann could have been predicting Luhrmann’s redundant use of 3D when writing years ago about a director’s compositional style in some forgotten street-savvy crime thriller as demonstrating a mastery of “the large foreground object.” In traditional photographic composition, depth and distance are readily indicated that way, but Luhrmann adds this elemental technique to 3D, doubling down on the simple geometric differentiation of space: an oscillating electric fan in the foreground; a spoked wheel rim that frames a mechanic’s sweaty face; rainbow-edged glints from superimposed thickness of car window glass. Shockingly, sadly, in 3D, Baz don’t dance. “Moulin Rouge” could-could-could without the stereoscopic luggage. The most garish, most vulgar image is a fat, cheap thrill, looking like a “bullet-time” sequence from “The Matrix.” That horrible car accident near the end of the story is hefted as a huge slab of camp, with a red-dressed redhead’s bloody, broken body twirling in slowest motion, rising to the height of the fated, faded billboard with the dead stare of Dr. Eckleburg. It’s so blissfully awful, Luhrmann offers up a second lashing a little later. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, in this moment, Luhrmann rises beneath vulgarity. This “Great Gatsby” is both panoramic farrago and a disorderly, deeply personal film for Luhrmann. But the lingering mood is a surprise: At the preview I caught, dialogue and background music were pitched at almost the same level, making the mood less the jarring anachronism of hip-hop that had been anticipated than the languor of trip-hop, that 1990s brood of a mood studded with ample sampling of decades of pop. The music under the lengthy end credits is lovely and downbeat, a decompression of the glitter and bombast and the literal-minded but thoroughly beautiful last two sets of images that measure the famous last lines of Fitzgerald’s novel. Luhrmann’s essential Australian vulgarity is in full snap and flower, but once the images fade, Baz turns shoe-gaze deejay. (Ray Pride)
“The Great Gatsby” is borne back ceaselessly into 3D, starting Friday. A trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.