‘Gatsby’ Love/Hate

05.09.13

‘Great Gatsby’ Reviewers Divided: Is Baz Luhrmann a Good Director?

Like Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet before it, The Great Gatsby is over the top with razzle-dazzle—and people adore it or despise it. Can a director so polarizing really be good?

When it was announced that Baz Luhrmann would direct a splashy new adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald book The Great Gatsby, movie critics, the Internet, the world, collectively cringed. No, wait, they screamed in excitement. Actually, they gagged at the thought of it. Or did I remember them creating a countdown calendar to the release date?

There are few directors who elicit such polarizing reactions from moviegoers. A starkly divided chorus of groans on one side and coos on the other follow the mere mention of Luhrmann or his previous films: Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001), and Australia (2008). The warring factions are on the front lines of their most epic clash now that Luhrmann’s über-stylized, utterly Luhrmann-esque take on the treasured American classic is hitting the big screen in all its bombastic 3-D glory: The Great Gatsby is coming.

What, exactly, is that Baz-ness that causes film fans to assemble at battle lines? When a director turns off as many haters as admirers he turns on, can he still be considered a good director?

Gatsby isn’t set for release until Friday, but Luhrmann’s reputation precedes him, leading many prospective ticket buyers to prejudge the film. Anyone who’s seen Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet is familiar with his penchant for visual sumptuousness, flair for razzle dazzle, and take-no-prisoners commitment to spectacle, even if over story. When the first Gatsby trailer was released, The Washington Post’s Jen Chaney wrote that “depending on your feelings about Mr. Luhrmann, the approach either suggests that Luhrmann has engaged in F. Scott Fitzgerald blasphemy or that he’s returned to red curtain trilogy form.”

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor belting a medley of love songs by Paul McCartney and Whitney Houston while standing atop an elephant structure in turn-of-the-century Paris while CGI fireworks boom over their heads in Moulin Rouge! is a scene that firmly places audience members in Team Genius or Team Lunatic. Modernizing Romeo and Juliet’s meet-cute to a tropical aquarium in modern-day “Verona Beach” elicits cries of “inspired!” or “insipid!”

The films are stylish. They’re over the top. They’re Bazzy. “When it comes to Baz Luhrmann and his style, it’s hard not to have such a strong opinion,” says Scott Meslow, entertainment editor at The Week. “He’s not the director you can hire to knock out a bland studio film, let’s put it that way.”

And people don’t hold back their opinions on Luhrmann’s work. Reviewing the film, Eric Kohn wrote, “Released in ostentatious 3D, set to a contemporary soundtrack by Jay-Z and shot with a soaring virtual camera that celebrates every corner of the affluent scenario, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has the hallmarks of a contemporary Hollywood spectacle. It’s missing the explosions, but make no mistake: Gatsby is one glitzy misfire.”

Kohn says the director’s latest effort is yet another egregious display of style over substance, a sin that has plagued Luhrmann’s works from Romeo through Rouge and straight to Gatsby. Kohn says Luhrmann may be an even worse offender than Michael Bay, the critics’ favorite punching bag, when it comes to overreliance on effects and excess in place of emotion and story. “If you go back to something like Transformers, I’m not insulted that this cartoon I used to watch has been transformed into a giant-sized children’s book the way I’m offended by what Baz has done to Gatsby,” Kohn tells The Daily Beast.

The films are stylish. They’re over the top. They’re Bazzy. “When it comes to Baz Luhrmann and his style, it’s hard not to have such a strong opinion.”

While Luhrmann’s vice may be style over substance, a vocal contingent of fans consider that a virtue. “Michael Bay is hated the same was Luhrmann is, but Bay doesn’t have Luhrmann’s passionate defenders,” says Meslow. Indeed, a poll of British moviegoers in 2010 anointed Moulin Rouge! the best film of the decade, and the movie was ranked on similar top 10 lists by Entertainment Weekly and Time. This is the same film that David Edelstein, then writing for Slate, called “an aesthetic that’s intended to seem generous (a thousand climaxes for the price of one) but ends up leaving you starved for a single moment of unhyped emotion. You can barely see the characters for Luhrmann screaming: Love me!”

The score, again, is tied at 1 for brilliant and 1 for hack.

“His films are brassy, anachronistic,” says Rex Roberts, associate editor with Film International. “He gilds the lily. They’re over the top. Intrusive, even. Gatsby is exactly all of that. But if you look at it on its own terms, it’s really interesting.”

So what are those terms? It’s The Great Gatsby by way of Baz Luhrmann, not by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that’s a lot for some filmgoers to handle. It’s a film that features a sepia-colored apparition of Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan floating in CGI clouds while Fitzgerald’s own words are scrawled across the screen in 3-D script. Audience members are given entrance into the world of excess via a soaring camera that speeds down the length of the Empire State Building, as if part of a Universal Studios ride. When Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby is introduced, he is so tan and impeccably styled and dashing and the perfect Leonard DiCaprio of your dreams that fireworks explode behind him.

Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is, as The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern writes, “Cecil B. DeMille on MDMA…like the Met Ball meets Cirque du Soleil meets the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.” A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes (43 percent rotten) and Metacritic (critics’ score of 60) hints that the party Luhrmann is throwing in West Egg will be exactly as divisively reviewed as his other works.

Even reviews praising the film offers words of caution about the Luhrmann ledge you’re about to leap off by buying a ticket and putting on those 3-D glasses. “You can find fault with virtually every scene in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby—and yet in spite of all the wrong notes, Fitzgerald (and the excess he was writing about and living) comes through,” writes New York magazine’s David Edelstein. A director’s signature should always brand his or her film. But rarely is that signature as glitzy, showy, ornate, candy-colored, and glaring as Luhrmann’s.

It’s unique. But is that a bad thing?

“When we go to the movies, we want to see something that’s going to challenge us or excite or move us,” Kohn says. “For some people it’s enough to get washed over by something that’s very visual and experiential. You look at something like Moulin Rouge! and it’s a beautiful movie, but a very fleeting experience. When I think back I remember individual shots, but I don’t remember what it did to me physically or emotionally.”

Meslow disagrees with that sentiment. “He’s so stylistic that it actually helps you tap into your emotions,” he says. “What I admire about something like Romeo + Juliet is that his flourishes help you feel the high school emotions that are inherent to the story.”

So as the he said/he said over Luhrmann, Gatsby, and the value of all his glitz wends its circuitous way to no definitive answer, perhaps that very divisiveness should be celebrated. Whether Luhrmann is a good director or a bad director, he is, more important, a cultural conversation starter. Gatsby, like no other film this year, is an event. People are upset. People are dazzled. People are bantering about it, raving about it, and trashing it, all of which is to say they’re talking about it.

“Luhrmann may be a victim of his success at being a publicist,” Meslow says, venturing that the breathless coverage of his soundtrack picks, casting decisions, and every second of teased footage plays into his status as Hollywood’s Most Divisive Director. “He seems to freely embrace the fact that he’s a polarizing director. Clearly he’s decided that this is his niche.”

His opulent, blaring, fantasia of a niche.