May 10, 2013



THE GREAT GATSBY:  Watch It At Home – Moulin Gatsby

Just for fun, let’s try to think of a worse match of filmmaker and material than Baz Luhrmann and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY.  Judd Apatow’s Macbeth?  Woody Allen’s Lord of the Rings?  Michael Bay’s Remembrance of Things Past?  Jean-Luc Godard’s Shrek?  (Although I’d pay to see that last one.)  Luhrmann is far from untalented, but he’s like that scorpion riding with the frog–he can’t change his filmmaking nature, and he’ll drown his own movie as well as Fitzgerald rather than alter his style.  The novel’s prose is famously supple, fragile, ruminative–all things outside Luhrmann’s comfort zone.  Luhrmann stages every scene of his Gatsby as though it’s a production number, and he probably should have gone all the way and turned it into a musical.  At least then it would have an identity of its own.

Gatsby has proven resistant to effective adaptation (unless you count the Elevator Repair Co’s stage version Gatz, which was built around a reading of the entire book from beginning to end).  The novel’s background of spectacle, romance and melodrama makes it seem like fertile ground for a movie, but none of the films have worked because truly, it’s a reverie about failed dreams, frustration and doomed hope.

Although the adaptation is fairly faithful to the novel (the script is co-written by Luhrmann and his customary collaborator Craig Pearce), the film, of course, doesn’t focus on any of that.  In fact, for a long time it tries not to focus at all.  The first half of this Gatsby is essentially a revamp of Moulin Rouge! with the Roaring Twenties in New York standing in for the Parisian Gay Nineties.  The script even reuses the bookending structure of Rouge!, adding scenes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) writing the novel while in a sanatorium being treated for alcoholism (so very Fitzgerald of him), just as Ewan McGregor began Rouge! by writing and narrating his sad story.   And of course the party sequences are frenzies of choreography, anachronistic music (the soundtrack was produced by Jay-Z) and fireworks, no over-the-topness too extreme.

The plot, for anyone not paying attention in high school, is fairly slender.  Nick, a poor relation of a wealthy midwest family, takes a house in West Egg on Long Island while working as a bond salesman in the booming Wall Street of pre-1929.  His small house is next to the massive mansion of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious tycoon and possible bootlegger who throws those wondrous parties, all the time longing that Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who he once loved and lost, will visit.  As it happens, Nick is a removed cousin of Daisy’s, and Gatsby asks him to bring them together.  This leads to ultimately serious complications with Daisy’s husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who has inherited wealth and who is himself having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), wife of a local auto mechanic.

Gatsby and Daisy don’t share a scene together until the movie is half over, so Luhrmann has plenty of space to load up with visual overkill.  Apart from the parties–Gatsby is introduced, literally, as “Rhapsody in Blue” climaxes on the soundtrack and fireworks burst over his head–there are CG crane shots and zooms into and around a cartoon-like recreation of 1920s New York that look, in 3D, like they were shot from the deck of the Millenium Falcon, and the desolate “Valley of Ashes” where Myrtle lives with her husband is like the post-apocalyptic landscape of a Mad Max movie.

The second half, once Gatsby has stopped throwing his parties, is calmer (sometimes to the point of lugubriousness), but Luhrmann still misjudges the nuances of the drama.  When Fitzgerald forces him, finally, to shoot a scene with all the principal characters talking in one confined room, Luhrmann never lets his actors get a performance rhythm going due to post-synched dialogue and a camera that squeezes in on the actors, requiring overediting.  He adds cliches from old movies that Fitzgerald (an unsuccessful screenwriter in his own right) wouldn’t have considered putting in:  when was the last time you saw a death scene where the victim, shot in the chest, fingers their wound and then stares at the blood on their fingers with incomprehension before realizing they’re dead and collapsing?  Every violent moment in the movie is overemphasized with slo-mo like a Hong Kong martial arts movie; every driving scene seems to be a deleted bit from The French Connection.

The only actor who really survives all this is DiCaprio.  He may not have been the perfect choice for Gatsby (Matt Dillon Damon, who played a sort of murderous Gatsby in The Talented Mr. Ripley, might have been more interesting), but he gives a thought-out, emotionally genuine performance, certainly far better than the stiff Robert Redford in 1974’s version.  Carey Mulligan is posed throughout as though she’s doing a magazine shoot, and when she gets a chance to act, she seems to be playing Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe giving a serious performance.  Tobey Maguire is wan and no match for Sam Waterston in 1974, while Edgerton, for whatever reason, is particularly hurt by the incessant, hollow post-synching.  Characters of importance in the novel like Myrtle and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Nick’s sort-of romantic interest, have been cut down to very little here.

Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife) as usual has tackled the film’s production and costume design, and there’s certainly a lot of it, although as with the CG, often the soundstage sets are clearly just that.  (The cinematography is by Simon Duggan.)  The 3D is less obtrusive than you might think.  Sure, there are some silly sequences with billowing curtains and shirts, but sometimes the perspective as characters interact is effectively amplified by the technology.  As for the hip-hop music, it almost doesn’t matter, since Luhrmann’s editing and design are so distracting anyway that he might as well be playing klezmer or Motown on the soundtrack.

On some level you have to respect Luhrmann (and Warner Bros, which with its co-financiers put up the $200M+ for production and marketing) for putting so much effort into something that’s definitely not Iron Man 4.  But the problem with this Great Gatsby is that it shares the mentality of a franchise movie–it’s all visual confetti and little substance.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."