If it weren’t for Baz Luhrmann’s name attached to the credits, it would seem like The Great Gatsby is Subhash Ghai’s best film in years. The only thing missing in it is a sequence that has Leonardo DiCaprio singing ‘Meri Mehbooba’ for Mahima Chaudhry.
The 1974 Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby was a dull bore, and it seemed like a good idea when Baz Luhrmann announced his plans to make his own version, given his proclivity for over the top imagery. His signature excessive style is very much present here yet the narrative is as hollow and intrinsically bankrupt as most of the characters in the film. Like his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge Luhrmann uses the stylistic touch of remixed modern hip hop and pop music in a period setting but to very choppy effect. Like a lovechild of a Ghai and a SL Bhansali product everything here is overwrought and grand, overtly melodramatic at every beat, blaringly extravagant at every turn. It’s the America of the roaring twenties shown through Luhrmann’s kaleidoscope of gluttony, which works on some levels but not all of them.
At the center of this sea of overindulgence is the suave Mr DiCaprio, whose introduction twenty minutes into the film is as showy and goofy as it can possibly get, his face jutting into the 3D camera, grinning a foot away from our glasses clad faces. He wears pink clothes, like Shahrukh Khan in Don, has a charming swagger with just the shade of some sort of insecurity that he tries to mask. Leo is just right for the role, an irresistible gentleman in the sun who hides a secret in the dark and longs for a woman who may never be his. He has played similar characters in the past and he’s at the top of his game here. The problems arise from the people surrounding him, beginning from Tobey Maguire whose curiously adolescent role delivers droning voiceovers to explain each and every character development, as if the audience is too stupid to keep up and figure things out on their own. The advantage of great movies is they don’t need to explain their characters and their motivations, only a badly made film needs a voiceover.
With the constant reliance on music, sound cues and special effects, Luhrmann forgets the most important aspect – the characters. It is true that the characters in the story are shallow and empty but that point can’t be driven by shallow and empty performances. Apart from Leo’s constantly involving and tragic Gatsby and Joel Edgerton’s rich chauvinistic pig the characters are simply high school level incompetent. There’s Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s desire played by Carrey Mulligan who utterly fails to effectively convey the dual nature of her character. She is cloyingly unconvincing as the woman torn between an unhappy but practical married life and a dreamlike forbidden love. Every time Mulligan stumbles to add any emotion to a scene, Luhrmann tries to balance things out by adding music, resulting in a superficial mess. He also adds cheap CGI to romanticize the imagery but it just cheapens the film further. The fact that the filmmakers chose to screen this story in 3D only mirrors the rich, slimy, callous businessmen from the film who would cheat the public into squeezing more money from them. Moreover, unlike Moulin Rouge, the music doesn’t work either, except for the song used in the end credits which actually fits with the mood of the story. The music is neither colorful the way Bollywood does it nor is it coherent like in good Hollywood musicals. In fact it isn’t the choice of the music as much as it is the way it is awkwardly jammed into the visuals that hurts the narrative. The silver lining in this high-strung surfeit muddle is Amitabh Bachchan who makes a tiny cameo but thankfully manages to avoid hurling the reputation of Indian cinema in the gutter.
(First published in MiD Day)