Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! was a potent but artistically irresponsible shot of absinthe. For every person that couldn’t stand the too-eager mess, there was another who fell into deep intoxication at every Looney Tunes, theater geek flourish.
Luhrmann’s entire “red curtain” aesthetic — silent-film mugging juxtaposed flagrantly against sonically hyperactive pop music tapestries, po-faced disposal of irony even as every 20th century signpost gets chucked into the blender, densely layered production design rendered into nothing more than abstract textures from hyperactive editing, like a Sam Peckinpah adaptation of Hello, Dolly! — offers viewers no other option but to presume they’re either being slapped or tickled. Those who have an affection for both find themselves thrown into a deep purple ambivalence, respecting the affront but relatively certain everyone exhibiting more enthusiasm is submitting to an unhealthful life plan.
In short, Moulin Rouge‘s fans were an annoying lot, but the movie itself was at least 160 proof Luhrmann, the real stuff. His long overdue follow-up (which, as the world seems ready to do with regard to Daft Punk’s Human After All in anticipation of Random Access Memories, presumes everyone is just going to pretend Australia didn’t happen) is burned gin, literature from the rail.
Nearly everyone has read The Great Gatsby, Minnesota-native F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most obvious candidate for The Great American Novel, and most of them who have likely read it too early, odds being that most students who made it to high school without flunking or dropping out have only a limited grasp on the novel’s theme of retrospective failure and the inability to turn back the clock. (In contrast, rage against the machine classics One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Catcher in the Rye always play particularly well among teens.)
Luhrmann’s $120 million adaptation of the story of a self-made mogul who amassed, adjusted for inflation, approximately $120 billion can’t make up its mind whether to revere the novel or to desecrate it, so it half-heartedly tries to do both. Fan of barnstorming, unfaithful literary adaptations that I am (two words: The Shining), I wish Luhrmann had given it up and just admitted that he was drawn to the material’s potential for candy corny flapper frippery. Yes, there’s a lot of screen time devoted to gold lame, pearls to twirl, CGI shots of an obsessively low-rise Manhattan skyline, exactingly choreographed servants, lumpy flappers jutting their gams out in all sorts of passé angles. And true, Luhrmann still hasn’t met a grotesque reaction shot he didn’t feel like slamming into the fold.
But Luhrmann doesn’t seem to comprehend that the entire novel was filtered through the first-person descriptions of an observer who, on page one, claims to haven’t a judgmental bone in his body … and then spends the next 180 pages or so bringing prodigious superficiality to vivid life. The tension between new and old money is crucial, and instead Luhrmann turns the tale of Nick Carraway into one big flashback about a mopey wallflower battling depression and, on the advice of his psychologist, turning it into typewriter art.
Would that Luhrmann have given into his own indulgences with greater abandon. I’ve already seen a few reviewers compare The Great Gatsby to the great Gatsby, the man who had all the ambition in the world, so long as it served his own image of himself. The only thing preventing that assessment from being devastatingly accurate is that at least Jay Gatsby had a Daisy to chase. Luhrmann’s green light in making Gatsby is nothing more than the reflection in a shallow mirror. And with now a dozen years separating his last signature film from this hollow mess, he indeed knows that time waits for no one.