Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Baz Luhrmann knows exactly what he wants when he makes a film. Luhrmann is, to some extent, the Michael Bay of melodrama, someone who takes well-worn archetypes and clichés and cranks them up past broadness and into comic overdrive, all while throwing it all out in an unprecedented quickness that borders on hyperactivity. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Luhrmann’s best work (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge!) has a giddy quality to it where the silliness stops being assaultive and veers towards transcendence.
Luhrmann has always been a polarizing director, but his most divisive works, by far, are his two adaptations, 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and 2013’s The Great Gatsby. All of Luhrmann’s films feel excessive and absurd, but with Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!, at least he’s being excessive and absurd with his own material—Strictly Ballroom is based on a play Luhrmann helped develop in the 80s, while Moulin Rouge! takes a famous location and one real character (Toulouse-Lautrec) but otherwise invents a new story. With his two major adaptations, he works with material by of two of the greatest writers who ever lived. Slavish devotees to the “the book is always better” argument pull out their sacrificial knives for Luhrmann, but his films do (at least superficially) follow the text rather closely. Besides, storytellers must change things up if they’re going to make the story their own.
Departure from the text isn’t the problem with Luhrmann’s films. The real issue is a question of whether or not Luhrmann has taken the book’s themes and said anything interesting or new with them. Luhrmann is skilled with melodrama, but the two great works of literature he’s played with aren’t melodramas, and his emphasis on the romantic elements of the films feel weightless when he reduces the more complex material at the heart of the stories. Luhrmann’s films are, by design, style over substance, but it’s only frustrating when he deals with material that does have substance at its core.
This can be a difficult line to draw, considering how melodramatic these stories might seem on a pure plot-level analysis. Luhrmann’s greatest interests lie in forbidden romances clashing with tradition, societal expectations, and selfishness. That describes Strictly Ballroom (two dancers of differing experience vs. conservative ballroom dance style) and Moulin Rouge! (poor bohemians making great art vs. selfish Duke), which are his purest melodramas. But on the surface it describes Romeo and Juliet (teenage love vs. warring families and parents with their own motivations) and The Great Gatsby (nouveau rich man and his long lost love vs. her old money husband). When one looks at how Shakespeare’s plays were often performed in the past—with exaggerated emotion—the line blurs even further.
The real nuance of the original works lie in their language, not plot, and Luhrmann’s skill at preserving the language’s pulse isn’t always assured. In the case of Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann’s choice to cast teen idols as the star-struck lovers (Claire Danes was the star of the cult teen show My So-Called Life, Leonardo DiCaprio was the Oscar-nominated star of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and was about to star in the microbudget sleeper hit Titanic) might make sense on some level, thematically, considering how the world of the play and film revolves around these two and their families, but often the younger actors don’t quite know how to deliver Shakespeare’s text. Too often the young stars equate shouting with great acting, and the meaning of the words gets lost along the way. And that’s considering that these are two of the better teen actors in the film—Dash Mihok, playing a particularly dopey version of Benvolio, flat out doesn’t know what the hell he’s saying. Even some of the more experienced actors (Paul Sorvino, John Leguizamo) are lost as they’re carried away by Luhrmann’s excessive style. When Pete Postlethwaite’s Father Lawrence is the only one with a clear understanding of what he’s saying, it’s a problem.
Romeo + Juliet has more than its share of inspired moments. DiCaprio and Danes might lose the thread when they’re talking, but they’re still effortlessly charismatic actors, and they’re often quite good when it comes to simpler scenes of them frolicking in the midst of adolescent love or just posing. It may be a shallow pleasure, compared to the meat of the play, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless. Luhrmann makes a number of other good choices. His introduction early to the world by having a television newscaster speaking Shakespeare’s chorus’s words makes perfect sense, considering how the chorus exists to give the audience background on the story.
Luhrmann’s excessive style suits the early party scenes, where it’s easy to get lost in the blurs of colors, costumes, and beautiful people. Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) starts the famous Queen Mab monologue while giving Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) ecstasy, and for a moment this crazy Australian’s re-imagination is a glorious mess rather than an infuriating one. The film hits a particularly good groove about thirty minutes in as Luhrmann goes for broke with the bombast, shooting off fireworks over Juliet’s head and capturing the intoxicating feeling of first love—Romeo’s first sight of Juliet through a beautifully lit fish tank is a gorgeous shot, and when Luhrmann brings in a boy’s choir to sing “When Doves Cry” to underline Lawrence’s concerns about the warring families or “Everybody’s Free” to capture the ecstasy of the couple’s wedding, it’s hard not to get caught up in the sublime silliness of it.
The film’s second half is more problematic. Luhrmann is too caught up in the romance between the two teens to bring a more balanced perspective to the proceedings. Yes, it’s easy to relate to the exaggerated feelings between the two, whether it’s dealing with their first love or their overbearing parents, but it doesn’t change that they’re a couple of self-absorbed teenagers, not heroes. Luhrmann’s over-the-top Christ imagery is gorgeous to behold, but it underlines his big mistake with the film: he believes too much in the true love of these kids, and he views them as martyrs. It’s too much of a reduction of the complexity of the work: Romeo and Juliet aren’t just pretty lovers. Tybalt isn’t just a sniveling villain. Mercutio isn’t just a ham. The parents, overbearing as they might be, aren’t scheming villains with little concern for their kids. Luhrmann lacks Shakespeare’s sense of perspective.
Still, the way Luhrmann captures the romanticism and the angst of the central figures at least makes Romeo + Juliet a mostly compelling watch. The same can’t be said for The Great Gatsby, which is in truth a much tougher adaptation than Romeo + Juliet. The earlier film is based on a play, already in dramatic form, and doesn’t risk losing the beauty of its language in a visual medium—the language is part of the action. With The Great Gatsby, nearly all of the language is part of the internal musings of Nick Carraway (the real protagonist, not Gatsby). Luhrmann attempts to carry some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose over via an irritating framing device that unsuccessfully tries to mix Nick with elements of Fitzgerald’s own alcoholism. But the narration mostly feels dull and expository on film, and Nick (played with characteristic earnestness by Tobey Maguire) mostly resides in the background, watching Gatsby do a bunch of stuff.
As with Romeo + Juliet, that stuff is awfully engaging, at least for a little while. Luhrmann again approaches the party sequences with ecstatic zeal, reveling in champagne, flappers, and glitter. He repeats the Moulin Rouge! tactic of placing modern songs in period setting, and he’s largely able to draw the parallel between modern hip hop (mainly Jay-Z) and the decadence of the Roaring Twenties. And the introduction of DiCaprio’s Gatsby, at the top of a huge staircase while fireworks go off and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” peaks, hits the wonderfully silly mark that Luhrmann strives for time and time again.
Yet again, the main problem is the comedown, which a melodramatist like Luhrmann has trouble with. Luhrmann believes so much in Gatsby, in his struggle, and in his search for happiness that he tramples over many of the character’s greatest flaws. He’ll emphasize the evilness of the moustache-twirling Tom Buchanan or the weakness of Jason Clarke’s George Wilson, but Gatsby is our true hero. Never mind that Tom, for all of his old money arrogance and sense of propriety, is not a monster, and that Gatsby himself is often blind to the reality of his situation. DiCaprio’s assured performance—a mixture of charm, beauty, and pathetic attachment—captures some of the character’s nuance, but his director is often working against him.
Luhrmann also has trouble with a story that’s far more restrained and sober than Romeo + Juliet. Where the earlier film has an explosive ending, the latter deals with the slow draining of hope in the Jazz Age as the hangover of the Great Depression loomed just around the corner. Luhrmann takes some of Fitzgerald’s more elegant symbols (the green light, the all-seeing eyes of Dr. Eckleburg) and underlines them in a way that’s outright comical. These were never subtle symbols, and even the most gifted director in the world would have trouble not making them heavy-handed on the screen. Luhrmann’s whole approach is heavy-handed by nature, and as he approaches the comedown with the same excess of the rest of the film, it grows exhausting in its lack of regard for tone.
Similar to Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann believes too much in the romance that defines his protagonist’s life. But where the earlier film saw him at least dealing with a real love story (even one that’s more based in infatuation than love), The Great Gatsby sees him completely missing the point of the relationship. Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) is a purposeful cipher on the page, a symbol for everything Gatsby ever wanted, for the happiness that remains elusive even when it’s seemingly within his grasp. She is a shallow person who doesn’t know what or who she wants, and Gatsby’s failure to realize that leads to his downfall. Luhrmann, however, emphasizes the lovey-doveyness of their relationship, making it the emotional core and reducing the scope of the story. It’s no longer a symbol for the American Dream. It’s about a love that’s broken apart by selfishness. And while changing the shape of the story could, in theory, work, Luhrmann and the talented Mulligan are defeated by a character that’s nearly as impossible to play as Nick. Where Maguire is lost animating a character with an entirely internal arc, Mulligan is stuck with a person who’s purposefully empty. It’s a great literary device, but it doesn’t make for great cinema.
Therein lies something Luhrmann needs to realize: books are not movies, and not all love stories are true love stories. He should perhaps take another look at Moulin Rouge! and see what works best for him—a place with real significance reimagined. Deliberately shallow archetypes rather than reduced complex figures. Natural melodrama rather than forced melodrama. Personal stories that don’t strain for importance (notice how studiously I avoided talking about Australia). Luhrmann is a gifted stylist, but he would be better off creating stories that compliment his style rather than forcing masterpieces to fit it. It’s easy to see how Luhrmann might have been attracted to Gatsby in particular, given the character’s overblown grandiosity when it comes to impressing his long lost love, but it’s not enough to make his adaptation worth seeing. Luhrmann might have been able to capture the plot and scenery of great literature, but he missed their brains and pulse.
Max O’Connell is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail. Go read more of his other blatherings about film.