The deconstruction of the American Dream has been a prevalent thematic element in many a film released in 2013. From At Any Price to Spring Breakers, the concept of the American Dream and the big ideas behind it are under siege. Though no film has critiqued the idea by relishing in such unencumbered opulence quite like Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Crafting The Great Gatsby as a high-speed trash-opera, Baz Luhrmann stylistic sensibility takes precedence over any and all aspects of the picture. This, in itself, is not quite as disastrous as one may expect. Luhrmann owns the film, confidently implementing his brash excess. Towering performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Joel Edgerton are complimented by Luhrmann’s visual spectacle. A hushed tone of reverence often accompanies adaptations of established totems in American literature. Luhrmann refreshingly takes that sense of reverence and amplifies it to the tenth degree, disregarding convention by appraising The Great American Novel to the level of pulp.
The dizzying displays of visual decadence populate nearly all of The Great Gatsby’s first act. It’s all a little too on-the-nose, serving as a replication of its narrator’s state-of-mind. Following an impossibly accomplished introduction of Jay Gatsby, the film’s gaudiness reaches its excessive peak. Leonardo DiCaprio truly serves the role and the film well, singlehandedly offering a trajectory to Luhrmann’s vision. The actor has always been a strong asset to any given cast, but this may be his single most crucial role – it’s the type of performance that essentially carries the film where his absence adversely affects the overall design.
Luhrmann’s stylism is an acquired taste. There’s little room for subtly in his extravagance and often times he’s more concerned with pageantry over exposition. Despite this, his work is pumped with passion and visceral engagement. Even when The Great Gatsby gets bogged down in theatrics and melodrama, the candy-glazed set designs appeal to the eye. But this exercise in artificiality and consumption simply wears thin as the film progresses. Luhrmann simply can’t maintain the hyperactive pacing and bustling energy that he brings early into The Great Gatsby and deploys sporadically throughout. Simply put: his directorial presence, while a well-defined one, lacks consistency. The immaculate production, strong performances, and regular usage of Fitzgerald’s prose keep the film on an even keel. As inspired and pronounced a voice Luhrmann may be, his stylistic sensibility tends to produce a high-strung assault on the senses – probably about as close a replication to the hangover one gets from attending Mr. Gatsby’s parties.