Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'

By Moira Sullivan

Leonardo DiCaprio on the Red Carpet at Cannes (Anne-Christine Poujoulat (AFP)

The Great Gatsby belongs to America’s folklore. Is it any wonder that we are protective of it when it is recreated on film? Baz Luhrmann’s production is shot in Sydney all the way through and most of the actors are Australian, but it doesn’t matter, really, since most of the film is the result of elaborate special effects and the dialogue coaches did a great job. Fortunately Ziegfeld Follies in Times Square is spelled right in the film, though not in the trailer.

There is one aerial shot of New York, but mostly it’s a Sydney set.  In the beginning and even middle of the film, the cardboard city works, but towards the end it feels confining to be so far away from home. The ingenuity recreating this classic story by F. Scott Fitzgerald is enchanting – the mansions, New York and Long Island.  But the journey from Long Island to NYC and back is two black roads with a make believe Big Apple in the background. The artifice is heavy and faithfulness to the plot means that the ride back and forth from NYC is followed like a trail of breadcrumbs.  In between the Big Apple and the Long Island mansions is a run down little town where some of the more serious decadence of the film takes place.

The beauty of location shooting in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 Gatsby is that it was filmed on Fifth Avenue, the Waldorf Astoria, Manhattan, New York and Rhode Island.  The beauty of Luhrmann’s production is that he had the fantasy and vision to recreate something without even being there. It is clear that his art direction staff will win awards for their inventiveness. Coppola based his script on Fitzgerald and Luhrmann’s Gatsby script is penned by himself and Guy Pierce based on the novel.

As for casting, most of the leads stand out especially Leonardo Di Caprio as Gatsby. His commanding performance will win over the audience as the poor suitor who believed he was God and whose destiny for being in the right place to rescue a rich sea captain was one of many fortuitous happenings. Even when fortune eluded him bootlegging put him in the right direction. It was however all done for one girl, Daisy, who he met before going off to war. Carrie Mulligan plays the girl and her acting is brilliant. Less convincing is Toby Maguire as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story in voice over. He is supposed to be the guy in the wings as far as a character but he makes a dull impression gathering together the threads of the plot.

The direction of the film is captivating mostly in the beginning since audiences will love the spare no expense expanse of the set. As Fitzgerald wrote, it was a time when liquor flowed freely without restriction and all classes participated in its consumption.  Dialogue from the novel is of course a bit clich├ęd for example when Nick Carraway declares he is "going to get royally drunk". And there are just too many "old sport" comments by Leonardo’s Gatsby

Alcohol is a main character in the story—it is the impetus behind the wild parties, the infidelity, the free love and in the end a car accident and murder and of course how Gatsby acquired his wealth.

The Great Gatsby for the uninitiated is about a simple man from South Dakota with dreams. The class structure of the American society weighs heavily on anyone wanting to climb ahead even that is what so many wealthy citizens did, from everywhere, and lot of them through bootlegging such as John F Kennedy’s father and grandfather. But the disgrace of being poor is what keeps the Gatsby in place and defines his actions.

The segregation of whites and blacks is a minor point of the film where African Americans are used rather exotically to complete the setting: a trumpeter across the way in a small town, a carload of partiers off to New York, a woman hanging out of a window gazing at the city and dancing girls at clubs. These characters catch the eye of Nick Carraway but are not narrated. Segregation is known through dialogue not voice over, whereas class is given ample space.

The pull of Gatsby is in part because the alcoholic writer Fitzgerald spent time in Hollywood at lavish parties like the ones in the film. He called himself a Hollywood "hack" and here you can appreciate the irony of the title The Great Gatsby with "Great" added as an afterthought. In the end, the story teases about a wild life that looks exciting but is full of undercover crime, broken dreams and ruined lives. 

Baz Luhrmann's film opens the Cannes film festival on May 15 out of competition. The Great Gatsby will command the box office for its promises and inventiveness.

© 2013 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 05/15/13
Movie Magazine International