Baz Luhrmann‘s rehashing of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s iconic American masterpiece The Great Gatsby is a slight improvement over the 1974 iteration with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. By this, I mean that it has ascended one rung of the film-quality ladder by becoming likably cheap razzmatazz instead of eye-reddening ennui. It’s hard not to enjoy it, much as one might enjoy sucking on a lollipop or lying on a tropical beach in the moonlight and staring blankly at the stars. But what a shame that a film about a novel of such depth and complexity—with an underlying message that’s as intriguingly shadowy and oneiric as the eponymous character—should suffocate meaning beneath gyrating flesh and party confetti.
Those with no knowledge of the book will be pleased to learn that the shell of the plot essentially remains intact, as does Fitzgerald’s language in much of the narration and dialogue. Those who have read it will—so I hope—find that a faithful retelling of events can’t make up for threadbare characterization and a thoughtless interpretation that has little to do with Fitzgerald’s scathing satire of 1920s American capitalistic decadence. On the contrary, Luhrmann presents us with little more than another Hugo or Oz, The Great and Powerful, appealing to the mainstream of brainless multiplex audiences by freighting his cinematography with unnecessary 3-D zooming camera effects while stripping his source material of its unique voice and humanity. To steal a line from the first-person narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), this movie “represents everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”
One of Luhrmann’s strokes of inanity is to imagine the film’s opening setting as a room in a sanatarium in which Carraway, now a recovering alcoholic, is relating to his psychiatrist (Jack Thompson) the advice once bestowed on him by his pontificating father: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” I guess Luhrmann’s understanding of this passage could therefore be paraphrased as “Whenever you want to seem intelligent, throw in some father-figure Freudian allusions.” Nick’s point of departure illustrates an intricacy that Luhrmann can’t even begin to understand. Those acquainted with the book should realize that this opening quotation establishes, among other things, a dichotomy between Carraway’s moralistic carping—which has the limiting effect of focusing on the past—and the quixotic hoping of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) for the future. Indeed, Gatsby is unlike every other character in his “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have not found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”
The object of Gatsby’s hope is the blond and gorgeous—and childlike and flighty—Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). We first meet her in a recumbent position on a divan at her home where Nick has come to a dinner hosted by her husband—and third love-triangle vertex—Tom (Joel Edgerton), an old Yale college chum of Nick’s. Keeping Daisy company is the aquiline-featured brunette Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a golfer who’s also a first-class example of a jaded rich bitch. Tom’s old-money roots and sneering contempt for those outside his social stratum help explain Nick’s self-proclaimed critical standoffishness toward others, as well as his admiration for the nouveau riche earnestness he discovers in Gatsby. Chief among Tom’s objectionable qualities is his hypocrisy—his country-club snobbishness doesn’t stop him from cheating on Daisy with a low-rent skanky auto mechanic’s wife named Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), who’s literally from the wrong side of the railroad tracks.
Floating in a dream above all this seaminess is Gatsby, whom we first spot looking down on the wild shindig he’s hosting from an upper-story window in his mansion. He has withdrawn into his own little imaginary world in which the future has become contemporaneous with the past. He exists now only as a shadow of himself as he tries to reach out and reclaim the reality of his lost love for Daisy, who settled into a comfortably prosperous marriage to a man she supposedly didn’t love during his service in the Great War.
It’s this sort of yearning idealism that is completely lacking in DiCaprio’s portrayal of the character. I know he’s eye candy for teenage girls, but he should stick to films like Titanic where the role he’s asked to play is as dumb as he is. Besides having no chemistry whatsoever with Mulligan, DiCaprio hasn’t a clue of how to deliver an epithet like Gatsby’s “old sport” with the patronizing irony it requires. Nor does he know how to do much of anything except furrow his eyebrows into a scowl in the hope that we’ll believe he’s a serious actor. Mulligan, at least, is leagues beyond Mia Farrow’s anemic interpretation of Daisy—she captures the wistfulness associated with her recognition that the best thing for a woman to be in this world is a “beautiful little fool.” And by her side, Edgerton proves capable enough at conveying the gruff haughtiness of Tom Buchanan. Actually, he makes Tom seem simpatico next to Carraway, whose ratlike features resemble a cross between a chess-team captain and Crispin Glover in Willard. He’s got a sniveling voice to match, exuding the naïveté of pimply adolescence. Can we believe that the coy Miss Baker wants to flirt with this shambling dweeb? His creaking delivery in the voiceover is not at all the air of self-possession we perceive in his observances on the printed page. Yes, when Gatsby and Nick—the novel’s primary characters—are this weakly portrayed, it simply will not do.
But character doesn’t matter to Luhrmann anyway, or he wouldn’t have spent the majority of his time presenting party scenes that look like they were copied and pasted from an MTV music video. I hardly say this in jest. For his soundtrack, he treats us not to the zippy charleston numbers appropriate to the era but to a melange of anachronistic thumping beats served up by such rap and hip-hop “artists” as Beyoncé and Jay-Z. All this as the camera swerves and swirls around the revelers’ pseudo-humping forms. If this is an attempt to appeal to the younger generation, it seems a miserable failure. At least I’d like to think that even gawking, media-weaned, and sex-crazed sixteen-year-olds have enough awareness to discern the ridiculousness of such primitive modern dance alongside 20s hair styles and retro automobiles. And Gatsby’s palatial residence is ten times tawdrier than the McMansions that sprout up daily in Fairfield County, looking like a larger-scale replica of a castle from Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Splash and flash are the hallmarks of Luhrmann’s style (witness Moulin Rouge), but they’re conspicuously ill-used in adapting a novel that parodies excess. Luhrmann’s rendition of The Great Gatsby shows us that he’s principally a panderer to the aesthetically bankrupt sensibilities of an age of escapism and acquisitiveness similar to the one excoriated by Fitzgerald. It may be amusing in places, but at core this film is an embarrassing reminder of how easy it is for a hack movie magician to wave his wand and transform literary greatness into spectacle.
Joe’s Grade: C