Assuming you stayed awake in English class, you’re probably familiar with The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic about a mysterious millionaire’s tragic quest to mend his broken past. The book has been a staple on teachers’ lesson plans for generations. Over the years, there have been several blundering attempts at big-screen adaptations, most notably Robert Redford and Mia Farrow’s dry 70’s variation. Leave it to director Baz Luhrman — the flamboyant ringmaster behind glittery vaudevilles like Romeo And Juliet and Moulin Rouge — to tackle the most ambitious incarnation yet. Theoretically, Fitzgerald’s colorful prose is a perfect match for the filmmaker’s floridly grandstand visual style. The novel transitions effortlessly between exaggeration and finesse. Nothing if not an exhaustive artist, Lurhman still manages to balance his obsessive bombast with the necessary measure of dramatic intimacy. The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as beautiful Daisy Buchanon, and Toby Maguire as Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick Carraway. Dissenters have already assembled, torches and pitchforks in hand, ready to condemn the picture for its garish imagery and superfluous 3-D. Firstly, complaining that a Baz Lurhman movie is too lavish is like complaining that George A. Romero movies have too many zombies. Secondly, once it departs from its initially manic rhythm and settles down, this adaptation does indeed capture the heartbreaking melancholy of its source, even if the book’s timeless relevance remains thoroughly out of reach.
The script (by Luhrman and Craig Pearce) is rather faithfully transposed, apart from one curious alteration: a framing device that finds narrator Nick Carraway (Maguire) retrospectively receiving therapy in a sanitarium and novelizing the events. While I was initially agitated by the filmmakers’ sacrilege — the book never claims Nick would be committed! — I appreciate it as Luhrman’s effort to reconcile his outlandish vision with the book’s revered text. Now that he’s been cast as a disillusioned novelist, Maguire’s Nick provides a direct stand-in for Fitzgerald and the character can elucidate actions on screen with the author’s own celebrated passages. Moreover, the flashback conceit permits Lurhman to present the narrative as less an accurate history than a dream or a canted memory of shimmering 1920’s idealism seen through hindsight’s romanticized lens. Nick arrives in New York City in the summer of 1922 — a time of tremendous moral and social change, when Jazz anthems beckoned revelers into a debauched bohemian paradise and Prohibition simply made booze trendier than before. The story in earnest commences with a frenetically paced montage that surpasses even the opening of Romeo And Juliet in feverish overexcitement. In addition, Luhrman and cinematographer Simon Duggan choose a visual palette that’s so rich and creamy it’s like swimming in wedding cake. The soundtrack — produced by Jay-Z himself — bumps with anachronistic hip-hop that’s vague in both purpose and function. Any attempt by the director to create a meaningful cultural link between then and now, specifically through music, starves for thematic clarity.
The movie’s broad mannerisms continue with Nick’s visit to Tom, his college chum, and Daisy, his cousin. Residents of the prestigious seaside community East Egg — where supercilious aristocrats gather like ducks to the pond — the Buchanons are precisely the sort of pompous socialites people refer to when joking about jetting off to the Hamptons for the weekend. A racist brute with a hussy on the side (Isla Fischer), Tom cockily revels in the satisfaction of his own supreme pedigree. As played by hunky Aussie Joel Edgerton, the character emanates a musky magnetism that the book’s Ivy League stuffed shirt never could. Daisy, his charming wife, is the story’s flowery femme fatale, a white-satin princess who believes that women should be nothing more than “beautiful fools”. We meet her in an ethereal foyer of windblown silk curtains. If Mulligan is not exactly the striking beauty that many adoring readers imagined, she still has that irresistibly feathery air that makes Daisy literature’s most teasing angel of seduction. Meanwhile, Nick lives in West Egg — accommodations for New York’s nouveau riche, where Gatsby’s extravagant palace sits just across the harbor from Tom and Daisy, so close he can see their green doc-light beaming eerily over the water. As Fitzgerald’s most potent symbol of unattainable desire, Luhrman revisits the image constantly, using the ghostly vista of luminous emerald fog as a haunting visual motif.
Who is Gatsby, though? Where did he come from? How did he make his money? Why does he stand at the edge of his dock and reach out longingly toward that distant beacon? Nobody knows exactly — not the tailor who fits his countless designer suits and not the mechanic who customized his supercharged yellow roadster. The hundreds of partygoers who frequent his weekly bacchanals have theories. Could he be German royalty, or maybe a bootlegger? The film’s dramatic pivot comes when Gatsby (DiCaprio) recruits Nick to help retrieve something from his past. The movie improves considerably once the actors are allowed to, you know, act. There’s a scene in Romeo And Juliet when the amped up, rock-and-roll enthusiasm subsides briefly for the titular lovers to flirt through a restroom fish tank. Similarly, when Gatsby finally confronts his desired, Luhrman pumps the breaks, and DiCaprio, an enchanting performer, expresses a perfectly heartwarming look of elated disbelief. The director and star forage deeper than any previous adaptation into the enigmatic character’s buried passions. Of course, the movie achieves nothing close to the novel’s cultural and ideological profundity. It was essentially about the toxic materialism and empty promises of the American Dream. Luhrman, an Australian, has nothing to say on the subject and definitely indulges his inner party-planner during the famous soirees. He stages them like New Year’s Eve bashes on crystal meth. Still, if you can overlook The Great Gatsby’s confetti showers and champagne fountains, you’ll witness instances of extraordinary grace and beauty.