Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann is an indulgent man. He revels in drama, tips the scale to grandeur, spins a breathless spectacle and conjures up a magnificently magical world. A USD 120-million at his disposal, who wouldn’t? Like his previous magnum opuses – “Moulin Rouge” and “Australia,” Luhrmann’s latest offering, also the opening film at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, “The Great Gatsby” is made up of things spectacular: special effects, CGI tricks that breathe life into any visual, a 3D this time round to enhance the show further, striking images, handsome actors, a high on jazz score…it is Broadway on testosterone. So consumed is Luhrmann in creating this enchanting carnival of life and times in New York’s era of roaring 1920s that he forgets the one element that is the core of this great American novel by F Scott Fitzgerald - the ugly truth of life itself.
The novel is a stark narration of a decadent, resistant-to-change society by its observer, Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire in the film who comes across as flat and jaded). Its characters are fascinating people: the suave mysterious businessman Jay Gatsby (the impressive Leonardo DiCaprio), the brute boorish millionaire with a roving eye Tom Buchanan (impactful Joel Edgerton), his wife, the glowing Daisy Buchanan (motionless Carey Mulligan), his lower middle class mistress Myrtle Wilson (the talented Isla Fisher), her hopeless mechanic of a husband George Wilson (Jason Clarke), the cynical amateur golfer Jordan Baker (can’t miss Elizabeth Debicki), and the deliciously sinister Meyer Wolfsheim (memorable Amitabh Bachchan).
At the backdrop of rise of coloured empires, social upheavals, loose morals and a society living in excess is a love story, between Gatsby and Daisy.
Where the book is rated as one of the greatest American novels ever, the film hardly lives up to its lofty reputation. In fact, Gatsby has been attempted by filmmakers five times before Lurhmann. And according to critics, none, except for Jack Clayton’s adaptation with a script from Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 came close to the real essence of Fitzgerald’s deep thoughts and acute observations. Gatsby’s incorruptible dream of true love, the dominant class divide, valley of ashes (an industrial wasteland) between the uptown West Egg and East Egg, the fear of retaliation from the oppressed, the burdened bourgeois, the missing morals and acts of careless people – Fitzgerald’s Gatsby exposed the real America behind the sudden boom of the 1920s. The irony is that it was never considered his greatest work when he was alive. He died an alcoholic, in depression of never achieving the great success he dreamt of.
Lurhmann’s Gatsby, on the other hand, is a Hollywood version of our very own filmmaker, the king of excess, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s opulent operatic dramas. His stage and set bedazzles us, his bright imagery blinds us, the extravaganza enraptures us. Rivers of champagne, fantastically wild parties, racing in custom made coupes, living in mansions that can pass off as mini castles – Lurhmann’s kaleidoscope of colour and costume is hypnotic. So much so, that we forget to take notice of dialogues, of emotions, of the story itself.
In one of its opening lines, an alcoholic Carraway remarks, “All the bright and precious things fade so fast, and they don’t come back.” “The Great Gatsby” is Lurhmann’s bright and precious thing. Unfortunately, it will fade, fast.
One thing’s for sure, it has made me curious enough to pick the book and turn its pages.