When I teach film, I often use clips from Baz Luhrmann movies as examples of formal techniques — montage, say, or framing. His use of the structure of filmmaking to communicate meaning is usually pretty easy to spot for beginning students, but he rarely steps into the schlock of, say, Ron Howard or Robert Zemeckis, who shall both stand in judgment for their crimes against cinema. (Howard will be exonerated based on his association with “Arrested Development.” Zemeckis will burn.)
Luhrmann, a master of visual impact, fills his frames with such exuberance and life. There’s a shot in “Moulin Rouge” of 150 or so men in evening dress turning around — taking the frame from dark to light in one second of choreographed movement — that gets me every time I see it. Luhrmann knows the power of guys just turning around, assuming they’re wearing the right colors.
Which is why it’s so strange that his latest, “The Great Gatsby,” out Friday, feels a little flat (ironic, since the film was shot in 3-D). “Gatsby” certainly has its strengths, most of which are spelled “D-I-C-A-P-R-I-O,” but Luhrmann’s directing seems overly restrained, particularly in the insane party scenes.
It could be, of course, a deliberate choice: We all learned in high school that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is about disillusionment. Maybe Luhrmann meant the scenes to be some sort of reflection of his source material — soulless parties for a soulless age — but I’m not buying it.
The 3-D gives the image a nice depth, but Luhrmann doesn’t use it as masterfully as Scorsese did in “Hugo,” and the dim colors that always result from 3-D certainly don’t help. Watching Gatsby’s first party, with the flappers and gangsters and diamonds and fringe, all I could think was, “I wish he could have shot ‘Romeo + Juliet’ in 3-D.” Now that was a film where Luhrmann combined his passion for technique with actual passion and created magic. I can’t figure out where the magic went in “Gatsby,” but it certainly isn’t on the screen.