In one of the more unfortunate segments of The Story of Film (in the second-to-last episode, “The 1990s: The First Days of Digital - Reality Losing Its Realness in America and Australia”), Mark Cousins rhapsodizes about Baz Luhrmann’s oeuvre for nearly 15 minutes. The prolonged interview and cooing voiceover that champions Australia as a formally inventive masterpiece seems out of place in a documentary that glosses over (or completely skips) the careers of so many more prolific directors, and also because it so blandly presents one of the 21st century’s greatest purveyors of straight camp. The man who used the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a pop music/cancan dance medley demands something crasser than a history lesson built out of lies through omission.
Sadly, it’s the more restrained version of Luhrmann that directed The Great Gatsby. There is no frame-fucking, no hyperactive repetition of small gestures, no grotesque too-close close-ups; instead, the film is simply a parade of setpieces that exhibit little of the director's characteristic energy and inventiveness. (In a post–Lady Gaga/Nicki Minaj world where every female performer from Katy Perry to Karen O dyes their hair purple, dons glittery leotards, and uses more wirework during a “live” set than House of Flying Daggers, it takes more effort—or just different drag—to be visible, let alone memorable.) Worse still, it’s a largely faithful adaptation whose alterations amount to naught, such as the jejune framing device of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), languishing in a sanatorium for alcoholism, turning his time in West Egg into a novel as means of therapy. While this may provide a neat excuse to preserve the more elegant moments of the novel’s narration at length (unlike Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation), it breaks up the story’s structure and certainly doesn’t deepen the audience’s understanding of Nick. (And, criminally, there is no Zelda Fitzgerald facsimile.) The ending is also unnecessarily tweaked: Mr. Gatz never gets to glumly reveal to Nick details of his son Jim's rigorous transformation.
Aside from the parties and Jazz Age excesses of giant cars, silk shirts, mansions, and speakeasies (accompanied by some cringe-inducing jazz dubstep), the two visual motifs from the book that Luhrmann has no problem running into the ground are the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg and the green light on Tom and Daisy’s dock. However, the ways in which they are repeated (as well as the bits of Nick’s narration chosen to accompany them) reduce each to “the eyes of god” and “desire” respectively; any further meaning is swept away with an elaborate (yet somehow lackluster) CGI crane shot. These trite synecdoches, along with the inclusion of nearly every line of dialogue, contribute to the bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The economy of Fitzgerald’s storytelling is exchanged for something far less remarkable.
The one inventive decision—and something that indicates Luhrmann has some remaining savvy—was casting Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim. Excising all the instances of Wolfsheim as a baldly anti-Semitic, moneygrubbing stereotype, he appears only once, at the lunchtime speakeasy scene (in which Gatsby asks Nick to invite Daisy to tea), speaking perfect English and dressed in a neatly tailored suit. Even for those unfamiliar with Bachchan’s persona, the actor manages to loom large (and unproblematically) throughout the rest of the film as Wolfsheim—not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio does as Gatsby, speaking only off screen up until the moment he finally introduces himself to Nick, as fireworks explode behind him and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” climaxes. (This also reveals a failure in the marketing campaign, for the film unfolds as if who plays Gatsby is meant to be a surprise—yet another moment that was meant to pop but is instead merely predictable.) DiCaprio’s offbeat, drawling pronunciations of “old sport” are perfect, as is his chemistry with Carey Mulligan’s Daisy. Even Joel Edgerton, sort of channeling Kim Novak as he angrily talks through his teeth, proves to be a perfectly brutish Tom Buchanan. But they are all toiling away in the wrong movie. Though it is quite possible that the neutered feel of Luhrmann’s Gatsby is entirely due to studio meddling, the finished product isn’t enjoyable, either as campy fun or a serious attempt at dismantling the American dream.