Baz Lurhmann loves telling a good story, and he seems to love telling you he’s telling you a story even more. His first three films did this via their “red curtain” opening. Australia put a boy in a tree as narrator. The Great Gatsby puts text on the screen. Lurhmann thinks this intentional distancing gives him license to bend “reality” to heighten the story’s emotional qualities. He heightens emotions via spectacle. Recall the rapid editing of Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge or the mythical elements in Australia.
The first twenty minutes of The Great Gatsby is like the first twenty minutes of last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. There is backstory inside a framing device inside a gimmick used as an excuse to get F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous prose on the screen with the characters. The movie also looks and feels like it has been sped up. The film cuts before a character speaks to show the next character reacting and then cuts again before they can speak. There’s a lot of information and barely any time allotted to process any of it.
And then Gatsby arrives, and the story slows down considerably. It begins to linger on moments, faces, touches, and glances. The party may be raging on all sides of our main characters, but they seem to exist both in the middle of it all and apart from the rest, “within and without,” to borrow a phrase from Fitzgerald highlighted by the film. This is the real strength of Fitzgerald’s story. It somehow captures the uproarious twenties while carrying these particular people through its narrative and it does this with astounding literary flourish. But this is a film review, not a book report.
Lurhmann’s devotion to spectacle and story makes him the ideal adapter of Fitzgerald’s book. He, too, loves the pomp, but he loves the people more. Lurhmann also knows when to get out of the way and let the story and its characters take center stage. Because he fast-paces the other parts, these moments really shine. The film also manages to be easier to understand than the book. I haven’t decided if I like that or not, but I like Lurhmann’s style, I like the movie, and I’ll look forward to seeing it again.
Lurhmann’s aesthetic encourages active viewing. His films are cinema meant to evoke strong emotional reactions. If a movie is a painting, Lurhmann wants audiences to run their fingers through the paint as much as is possible given their distance from the filmmaking process in any case. He lauds the immediacy of live theater and dance. So when you go see Gatsby, laugh loudly. Boo and hiss the villain. Cry. The Great Gatsby is unfortunately laden with a century’s worth of literary profundity. Get past the “great American novel” epitaph and enjoy the story.