In the age of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, sites that aggregate critical reviews and attempt to assign definitive scores to every movie at the multiplex, it seems like the lines between good and bad, adored and reviled, are pretty clear.
Sometimes, though, the audience decides that the critics have gotten it wrong.
‘The Great Gatsby’ is one of those cases. Not a critical darling by any stretch of the imagination, ‘Gatsby’ — a period romantic drama, not usually the stuff of blockbusters — has taken north of $300 million at the box office, and it's not done yet.
Curious about this disconnect, I get director Baz Luhrmann on the phone at his New York home and ask him if he’s read the bad reviews.
“Well, yes,” he says, “and I'm used to it. I mean, the critical response to ‘Romeo + Juliet’, ‘Moulin Rouge!’, ‘Strictly Ballroom’, and ‘Australia’ for that matter, but especially ‘Romeo + Juliet’... the critical response to ‘Romeo + Juliet’ was identical to ‘Gatsby’.
“Look, I feel for critics, because what I make isn't exactly cookie cutter. So you're sitting there in a screening and you're with some other guy who's maybe 65 or whatever and he's a revered critic, and you're looking at him sideways going, 'what am I supposed to make of this?' I think if you're with an audience ... when audiences go and see it, they just go: 'It's my Saturday night. I hope this comes alive, affects me, engages me, moves me.' You know?
“I always admired Owen Gleiberman, who's one of the big heavy hitter critics for Entertainment Weekly. A couple of years ago, he put ‘Moulin Rouge!’ in his top 10 films of the past 10 years. Great honour. Lovely. Except that when the film came out, he totally slated it.
“But this is the balls he had, and I'll always admire him for this. He wrote: 'I have never re-written a review in my life, but I'm going to re-write my review of ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Because I've seen it 10 years later and I realised that I just totally couldn't read what Luhrmann was trying to do. I saw it again on Blu-Ray and I'm making it one of my top 10 films of the last 10 years.' So I'm used to it, is all I'd say. I'm used to that. Look, audiences have made it move past $300 million, and we're not done yet, you know? The audience decides.
“What's a shame is when someone's sitting on the fence, and they read a review, and they go, 'ooh, is it all going to be just noise and crazy town video clip stuff for two hours?' And I don't think that's, in any way, an honest description of the film. So that person might miss it in the cinema, and end up seeing it on an aeroplane somewhere. And then they always say, 'oh, I wish I'd seen it at the movies'. You know? So I think audiences should decide for themselves. Which they have, in this case.”
The film’s box office success is certainly a vindication of sorts for Luhrmann, who sees a lot of himself in the title character.
“I think we fellows that weren't born into privilege and have imagined a big life and have dreamt with dimension can relate to that character in some regard,” he admits. “You know, I came from a very small town and I had big dreams from day one. I wasn't sitting in a small town thinking, 'gee, I'm going to stay here in Herons Creek and maybe run the farm', and then someone stole me away to the circus. No, I ran away to the circus. I ran away to a big life. Even as a young child, I imaged a life not too dissimilar to the one I'm living. So I guess I relate to that, you know?”
‘The Great Gatsby’ is in cinemas now.