Having now seen three of Baz Luhrmann’s films it is clear he is particularly drawn to one story, that of doomed love, and that having started, in the mainstream at least, with Romeo + Juliet, it was always going to be hard to reach the heights of that doomed romance again, but it seems to be something he is intent on trying.
Luhrmann’s production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 book, The Great Gatsby, takes a short novel that seems to be making a point about the type of people and era it was written about and convert it into a melodramatic doomed romance very similar, in some ways, to Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and, in doing so, it has a feeling that the point it may have been trying to make has been lost.
There are moments here where it almost seems to be saying something about those with excessive wealth, and almost making a social point, but it never quite manages as, no matter what it may say, it spends more time celebrating extravagance both in story world of the film and in the way it is produced.
With his aforementioned films Luhrmann set his place as being a visually exciting filmmaker who didn’t do things by the rules with anachronistic musical cues and the notion of the ‘red curtain’ ushering us into a world slightly removed from our own.
That was more than 10 years ago though and now the same style feels, if not dated, then certainly not enough to carry a motion picture so, while The Great Gatsby certainly looks great, it doesn’t have the excitement that these visuals once would have.
This leaves the film with the problem that while its first half is a rush of visual excitement; it ultimately feels like something we’ve seen before – especially as the initial conceit of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) writing down his story is one Luhrmann used in exactly the same fashion in Moulin Rouge and, while matching the conceit of the book, is something that is generally very hard to capture on film and this film bears that out.
This leads to a middle portion of the film that feels worryingly slow as the romance comes to the fore but, as DiCaprio’s Gatsby feels more like a cypher of an age than a character, this never quite has any emotional centre to it. Then as we get to the final act, and what should be more excitement returns, it is left somewhat hollow as the confusion between the point of the original story and Luhrmann’s desire to tell of doomed love meet head on.
The Great Gatsby then, while far from all bad, is much more empty than it should be and, while this emptiness may be intended to make a point in the book, in the film it simply feels misjudged and very much like Luhrmann may have run out of ideas in the late 1990s but is still trying to use them to create his movies now.