June Issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 11 years ago

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a crazy, inebriated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel of the same name. In this new version, each scene is treated in such a bizzare, over-the-top fashion, that by the time Amitabh Bachchan is introdced in a supporting role, one can’t help but think this film is ghost-directed by an over-indulgent, excessive Bollywood director. Come to think of it, if there were any lesser filmmaker than Luhrmann at the helm of this ridiculousness, and perhaps lesser actors, one might not have taken this version all too seriously to begin with.

True to its source material, The Great Gatsby tells the tale of an unpretentious man, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), whose introduction to mysterious neighbour and eponymous hero, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio), sets in motion events that change both men’s lives and Carraway’s outlook on life itself. Carraway arrives in Long Island, New York in 1922 and rents a comparably smaller house to Gatsby’s neighbouring palace. He’s in awe of this figure, whose life trajectory is shrouded in ambiguity but whose alluring aura permeates all of New York.

Guests turn up uninvited to the lavish parties Gatsby throws frequently and when Carraway receives an actual invitation on paper, he’s delighted. One learns quickly that the reason Gatsby does the things he does is not for the sake of boasting, but out of love for Daisy (Carey Mulligan), a married woman who also happens to be Carraway’s cousin. Therefore, Gatsby does in fact have an ulterior motive in meeting Carraway, who is only too happy to oblige. Carraway is to arrange an encounter between Gatsby and Daisy and this particular portion of the film, the subtle request as well as the actual meeting between the three, is its best by far. The awkwardness is played out beautifully and for a short while one is glad to witness genuine moments of human interaction. Alas, these are hard to find in a narrative filled with unconvincing and melodramatic scenes.

Luhrmann is of course known for being inspired by the genre of Bollywood, his past work including the lavish musical Moulin Rouge! and the historical epic Australia. Even in The Great Gatsby, his love for Indian cinema isn’t lost on the viewer. Amitabh Bachchan had us on miscasting alert for months (I can’t be the only one who felt that way) and he proves us right. Playing a Jewish gambler was always going to be a tall task for Bachchan and with an unconvincing accent and creepy demeanour, he’s clearly out of his comfort zone here.

Luhrmann is also the director of Romeo + Juliet, a radical modernisation of William Shakespeare’s play. But while the Bard’s works can be molded to fit innovative adaptations being produced on stage and the screen to this day, Fitzgerald’s clear narrative doesn’t lend itself smoothly to Luhrmann’s modern vision: 3D? Jay-Z? Both entertaining. But combined with Gatsby, almost always painful.

Not unsurprisingly though, the performances are excellent. Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is stellar, embodying the character like he was born to play it and portraying all emotions effortlessly. Tobey Maguire underplays Carraway nicely, even though his voice-over cannot carry the film. It’s also a lot of fun to watch Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan.

Midway through the film, Gatsby takes Carraway out for lunch, driving recklessly through the streets, but charming his guest and a traffic warden with proclamations of all his achievements. And there you have it, the entire film’s essence in one scene. The Great Gatsby is brash and at times even boring, with the character of Gatsby made great only by the actor portraying him. And I bet my $100 bill on this, a great performance doesn’t make a great film.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany