Having a streak of cheapskate in me, I’m very selective about which films I see in 3D. Paying the extra dollars for the cavalcade of superhero movies and animated features that have effectively padded their prosperity with dimensional upscaling in recent years doesn’t interest me, but there are instances when my curiosity overwhelms my defenses, and I’ll walk away from the ticket counter with some faux sunglasses in tow. I usually reserve that action for directors who I revere, which isn’t exactly a category that Baz Luhrmann falls into. Still, he’s a real director whose choices seem developed through devoted artistic reasoning, making his embraces of the technology, especially for a fairly unconventional project, all the more intriguing. Besides, it could be argued that Luhrmann has been directing in 3D his whole career. The technology simply caught up.
The Australian helmer endured a fair amount of mockery when he announced that The Great Gatsby, his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential American novel, was getting the 3D treatment. But that was from individuals who were apparently confusing Luhrmann with James Ivory, strictly on the pedigree and copyright date of the source material. Nothing juices up Luhrmann like spectacle, and the story of a man who spins himself into a life of ludicrous wealth and gilded luxury in order to win the hand of his idealized love undoubtedly tickled the reptilian pleasure center of the director’s brain. He doesn’t want to show the sparkling decadence of nineteen-twenties rich America, he wants to grab the audience’s hand and leap fully into it, like Butch and Sundance going over the cliff, but landing in frothing champagne instead of a roiling river. Whatever criticisms can be leveled against Luhrmann’s take on Gatsby–and there are criticisms aplenty–he can’t be accused of underplaying his hand, even if the only cards he lays out are diamonds.
In this version, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire gapes ineffectively as Tom Buchanan, the narrator of the piece. The cast also includes Joel Edgerton, stuck in cardboard villain mode as Tom Buchanan. These are good actors who have given great performances in the past. Handed iconic literary characters, they make almost no impression, and at times seem to play their roles at cross-purposes to the intended value to the story. DiCaprio’s Gatsby has none of the carefully cultivated veneer of success that’s necessary (the scene in which he’s first reunited with Daisy is especially marred by some wrong-headed emotional bumbling) and Mulligan registers a fascinating tarnished hope for only a moment before becoming little more than a fanciful object moving through Luhrmann’s picturesque falderal. The busy box visuals need to be grounded in something meaningful–something recognizably human–to be effective, a tethering tool that was inherently embedded in the source material Luhrmann adapted with his longtime screenwriting collaborator Craig Pearce. That’s not what they’re interested in, though. Not when they’re so preoccupied with getting fireworks into the sky, the camera racing over the surface of a lake and filling the frame with snow, confetti, even letters loosed from a typewritten page.
With all this excess, Luhrmann is sure to come upon a memorable image or two: a large drawing room with silken curtains billowing in the breeze or the aftermath of a party with a mirror ball hanging dully, a thicket of tinsel sloping awkwardly off it like an ill-fitting toupee, while well-dressed servants use nets to fish martini glasses out of the fountain. Thoroughly outnumbered by scenes that are garish and off-putting, the best images seem more like the lucky accuracy of the proverbial stopped clock than any inspired orchestration on the part of the director. Worse yet, there’s so little chance to bask in any of it since Luhrmann cuts as if the film will burn if it holds a single shot for too long. When he’s still and patient, it can almost seem as though there’s some real exquisiteness to what he’s built here, the frame holding a sense of physical depth that’s the true opportunity of the 3D technology, far more so than the favored kineticism that actually works against the visuals, turning them into a indiscernible blur. If only depth was what Luhrmann was truly interested in. That’s not the current he pushes back against. If it were, then maybe we’d have something.