For someone who seems to have such a firm grip on what they want to achieve, visually, Luhrmann seems totally unconfident when it comes to maintaining those visuals onscreen for more than a few seconds at a time. There are examples throughout “The Great Gatsby” of this, but an early (and notable) standout is when the camera is glacially tracking down a dinner table where all our characters are seated. The shot is from above and is meant to both establish the geography of where everyone is seated as well as reinstate the kind of over-the-top lavishness that the Buchanans are surrounded by everyday. We should have been given the chance to luxuriate in this moment, but instead, Luhrmann chooses to cut around to various conversations going on at the table, so quickly that you’re never able to latch onto any part of the conversation, but just long enough to disrupt the visual flow and make the whole scene feel wobbly and unbalanced. “The Great Gatsby” is full of moments like this, chockablock with things that Luhrmann just shouldn’t be doing in 3D, like excessive whip-pans (which give off a strobing effect), too many dissolves and constantly moving on to the next camera angle without a moment to take in all three dimensions. Had the movie come out at Christmas like it was originally supposed to, maybe these moments would have been cut down; as it stands, the movie feels like it’s been fiddled with and fussed over too much (something that could explain his lack of commitment to the images). Anyone baking cookies knows that too much time in the oven is never a good thing.
Every movie Baz Luhrmann does is a tonal high-wire act, where extreme silliness is often shoved right next door to dour melodrama (and vice versa). Sometimes this works beautifully, as in the case of “Moulin Rouge!,” where camp excess gingerly gave way to true heartbreak, amplifying both emotions tenfold. When Baz’s tonal ping-pong game doesn’t work, though, you get things like the first hour of “Australia” or, even more disastrously, “The Great Gatsby.” The story of “The Great Gatsby” is a tragedy, we all know this going in, but Luhrmann still throws screwball comedy (particularly the first meet-cute between Gatsby and Daisy) in at every conceivable turn, which seems teleported in from a different movie. Perhaps most tellingly, the story is set up as an exposé on the emptiness and frivolity of Jazz Age life, and then for the next two-and-a-half hours, Luhrmann luxuriates in it, blissfully unaware he's failing at the very goal set out by our narrator, Nick. Luhrmann can’t quite seem to distinguish which kind of story he's telling or even what he wants to say about the era exactly, but hopes if he puts enough razmatazz on screen, it won't matter.
An offshoot of the horrible framing devices is that Maguire is narrating the movie and also writing about the movie. Since Luhrmann must indulge in both, we get film noir-y voice over, but we also see him write the story; at first its handwritten and then later it’s typed out, with massive chunks of text cluttering the frame. Either we should have heard the narration or we should have read the story, but not both, and not at the same time. But perhaps most curiously, this idea of tossing phrases up on screen is used very intermittently in a (lack-of) rhythm that's jarring (and frankly, pretty amateur), taking viewers out of the experience, instead of drawing them further in. It's another sign of a filmmaker seemingly not confident with a movie already stacked with stars, in 3D, and with an A-list soundtrack. By the end, it’s literally snowing letters, almost as if Baz has just given up and is hoping that something will resonate.
There are, of course, other totally ridiculous things in “The Great Gatsby,” from the soundtrack itself (the completely out-of-place will.i.am song in the middle of a jazz-era party is just one of many instances where things just don't mesh) to the visuals, that are way over the top and add layer upon layer of distracting distance between the viewer and the emotional center of the movie (and what’s worse – the 3D looks awful). Then there are the thinly drawn characters (Carey Mulligan deserved better) and much more. Are we being too hard on the movie? What irked you? Weigh in below.