Everyone understands that a Baz Luhrmann film – from the imagination that brought us Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Australia – means bucket-loads of excess, indulgence and, formerly, fun. The collective breath was duly drawn when his plans to tackle F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tight novel of disappointment and decadence, The Great Gatsby, was first announced – and the results are predictably underwhelming. There’s a lot of colour, noise and syncopation as Luhrmann transforms the Jazz Age into the kind of theme party that would get Rhu Paul asking discretely that the music be turned down.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a used-up young man recovering at some form of facility complete with drifting snow. As part of the talking cure (then, writing cure), he narrates how he came to his present state. Once a bright-eyed go-getter with aspirations of being a writer, Carraway gets mixed up with his neighbour, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a recluse renowned for his magnificent parties. Rumours abound about the man, but no one seems to know the truth. The apparent enigma wishes to befriend Carraway, and it soon becomes clear that the bromance is actually inspired by Nick’s beautiful cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who’s trapped in a loveless marriage with ‘old money’ racist Tom (Aussie actor Joel Edgerton).
Rather than the tight, thin cool of the novella, Luhrmann’s Gatsby has ambitions of epic, sweeping romance. He dials up the melodrama to Shakespearean proportions, even suggesting a two families dichotomy between the ridiculously-named ‘West Egg’ and ‘East Egg’ – the film’s two main locations. And yet, for all its stylistic striving, the plight of the star-crossed lovers is as emotionally-stirring as Mills and Boon cover art. Despite his flashes of ‘look-at-me’ direction, Luhrmann uses pages and pages of narration which Maguire intones, occasionally while typing. Thus, we’re constantly told how and what to think – cut-and-paste Fitzgerald.
As with Walter Salles’ overly-faithful On the Road (2012), which graced the Croisette last year, here the writing of the book seems to become the abiding reason for the characters. Likewise, the sight of everyone enjoying themselves is like cinematic amyl nitrate; mad laughter for three minutes followed by a nasty headache. The real crying shame is a wasted DiCaprio, whose performance has infinitely more depth than the lacklustre 3D and CGI New York. Jason Clarke and Elizabeth Debicki also deserve honourable mentions, making Maguire and Mulligan respectively look like well-lit clothes horses: great sheen but little substance.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.