CliqueClack Flicks

Awaiting Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann is about to take on the literary classic 'The Great Gatsby,' but can his film be a triumph of substance over style?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in "The Great Gatsby"

Several years ago, when rumors first began that a high budget adaptation of The Great Gatsby was in the works, I, like most other film fans, was excited. There were many literary purists that stuck up their noses, as they always do, at the idea. But Gatsby, as a whole, is a very adaptable book. It’s very much a story through and through. There are the characters, standard drama plot points, the familiar narrative arc, and the majority of it occurs in the physical world — outside of the character’s heads. It, unlike other literary classics (such as this year’s travesty, On the Road), is very easily imagined on the screen. And I think that most people can agree that the 1974 rendition, starring Robert Redford, was less than perfect — and therefore was less than what the book deserved. So in my mind, a fair and honest execution of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfailing masterpiece sounded very prudent.

Soon enough the rumors grew into facts and confirmations, and before long we had a director: Baz Luhrmann. The news of Luhrmann, whose name is synonymous with glamour and lavishness, came as a hard pill to swallow for me. By some, he is hailed as one of the great contemporary film directors. By others, he is condemned as one of the worst and most overrated in recent cinematic history. I find myself somewhere between those two extremes, but unfortunately my personal tastes lean more towards the latter. His style of unreal, over polished worlds of super saturated color prove time and again to simply be too much for me to extract any kind of real truth from. I’m definitely not saying that filmmakers have to stay hard grounded in any form of realism. Many great directors and screenwriters, such as Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman, build, through their work, worlds far more surreal than the one we live in. But they remain within those worlds until they can convey something strong and true — something that connects their world to ours and shows us that it is no different. For me, the same cannot be said for Baz Luhrmann. Luhrmann’s style itself seems partial — unable to commit to itself, and likewise unable to return to reality.

Take Australia for instance. Australia exists in the same polished realm as other Luhrmann films, and in the third act of the film we witness the Japanese bombing of Darwin — a fairly important point in WWII, also known as “The Pearl Harbor of Australia.” The scene might have worked very well if when the bombs dropped, the lustrous and exuberant nature of the first two acts came crashing down as well. Suddenly, dark and tragic realities would have come rushing in, and the film might have tied together very nicely. But that’s not at all how the scene played out. Instead, it was shot the same way as the rest of the film: glamorous and unreal. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a sad or devastating point in the story, but I am saying it that it just wasn’t given the treatment that war and death deserve. The result was many nicely lit images of a handsome and muscular Hugh Jackman, with his sweat gleaming and every hair in place, running through a landscape of flaming houses and screaming women and children — like some bizarre Calvin Klein ad, set tastelessly against the backdrop of WWII.

Such treatment may prove to be all too much for a story like The Great Gatsby. The book relies heavily on the tonality of the 1920s, and Luhrmann should have no problem there. Elegant parties, the smell of outlawed, top shelf liquor, and the haze of cigarette smoke, blown out into the night air by thin, beautiful, red lipsticked flapper girls all seems perfectly fit for Luhrmann. But when it comes down to the emotional grit, I’m just not convinced that he will be able to deliver. The core of the story deals so very much with gilded smiles and concealed turmoil. Jay Gatsby is a fascinating character with many layers, each being much darker than the last. So inevitably, at some point, it will be imperative that Luhrmann peel back his own style to reveal something truer that lies beneath — a move he has not yet been willing to make in his career.

Ian Scott McCullough is a young filmmaker and writer from Tennessee. He is currently studying film directing in Chicago.


Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Categories: Features, General

2 Responses to “Awaiting Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby”

July 5, 2012 at 11:06 AM

I’m kind of feeling the same way. Although I’m sure the elaborate fantastical parties are going to be done much better by Luhrmann than in the previous Great Gatsby film (which had such a khaki color to it), he’ll really need to let the world crash to the ground in the 3rd act.

July 9, 2012 at 10:44 AM

I am pretty much dreading this adaptation. I have never enjoyed a Luhrmann film. I appreciate that he has a unique aesthetic and style, but it has only ever turned me off.

I think the real shame is that this seems so well cast. Perhpas Baz will surprise me.

Powered By OneLink