The Great Gatsby review

Luhrmann has never been a director to show much restraint and his excessive tendencies are the downfall of this sumptuous, intoxicating but poorly-mixed cocktail.

Umpteen eyes rolled when Luhrmann announced he would bring Fitzgerald's tale of class, love and the American Dream to the screen in 3D, and the naysayers were correct. Though there's a gin fizz to the initial vivid colours, the extra dimension is a barrier to this world, giving the visuals a cartoonish, plastic feel as Nick Carraway (Maguire) relates the relentless pursuit of wealth of his friend Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), who amassed a mysterious fortune and repute all to win back the heart of debutante Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan). Though often maddening, there's certainly a consistency to the film. Tender, truthful scenes are observed slowly, with saccharine strings for emotional signposts. But when the narrative touches on excess, appearances and lies, Luhrmann's ADHD-tinged camerawork kicks in and we're swooping through a party, with ill-fitting music, until the lens is painfully close to the faces of Maguire or DiCaprio.

The parties certainly do feel like a "kaleidoscopic carnival", but Luhrmann’s so keen to show the hedonism, the brightness, the fireworks, that the melancholy of these hubristic events disappears in a fug of booze, perfume & tiresome modern century drum sounds.

Some shots are replicated wholesale from Moulin Rouge and even the narrative approach – outsider tells us about his life-changing, but ultimately depressing journey into another world – is similar. Fitzgerald's text certainly had hints of the Orpheus myth but so much of the book's succinct subtext is lost in favour of hammering home that Gatsby's motivation was love. At one point, Nick relates the truth about Gatsby's past - essential to the plot, of course - then 40 minutes later tells us the exact moment Gatsby told this story, which then starts again...

There’s a wonderful section, around an hour in, where everything clicks into place for a while. DiCaprio and Mulligan almost throb with longing and desperation after third wheel Nick invites Daisy to tea at Gatsby’s instruction and Luhrmann takes a breath and lets the actors work and the beautiful production design dazzle. The romance and never-ending optimism of Jay Gatsby almost melts your heart as he promises Daisy a heavenly future while Mulligan does a fine job of conveying Daisy’s eternal sadness hemmed by upper class rigour as she tells Jay she’s “never seen such beautiful shirts”. But then we’re whisked off to another shindig and round of "guess the 21st century singer on the soundtrack" and the spell is broken.

DiCaprio, excellent throughout, is especially good when Jay explodes into fury after Tom’s taunts about his upbringing but so prolonged are these scenes that the eventual tragic denouement misses the mark. And there’s the rub. You might have hoped the overblown failure that was Australia would have encouraged Luhrmann to be a bit more ruthless in the editing room but when a needless car chase takes a needless detour so that we can see a watermelon needlessly squashed, it’s clear he’s not had a firm hand instructing him to ease off.

There’s a tender, sad film here, one whose design is marvellous and tone invigorating. DiCaprio and Mulligan shine – though book-readers may differ on just how likeable Daisy should be – and the central theme of Gatsby’s inability to buy Daisy’s love is finely captured. Luhrmann’s always been brilliant at portraying the slings and arrows of romantic love. But his worst habits – heavy-handed storytelling, distracting visuals – are indulged to the detriment of the novel’s sub-plots and its immense emotional impact.

A head-spinning mash of great ideas, unforgettable visuals and frustrating missteps, The Great Gatsby is a captivating yet substantial failure. Much like Gatsby himself, appropriately.

The Great Gatsby at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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