I can’t be the only one to find the sensational irony in the idea of Baz Luhrmann directing The Great Gatsby. When it comes to a story about a group of people who experience life as a series opulent, fashion-oriented lifestyles, throwing glitzy, manically irresponsible parties, who inherently have no actual personalities, substance, or authenticity, who better to direct than the man that turned Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a two hour music video. I know that Moulin Rouge has a strong following and I respect that, however, all I can remember of the film was noise and colors. As for his film Australia, I remember nothing at all, except that it seemed to never end. I feel like I may still be watching it, there’s no way of knowing. When The Great Gatsby started I was immediately distracted by the constant cuts, the editing was so rapid fire quick that I wanted to shout at the screen to slow down, let me look at all the colorful things and stuff you obviously want me to see. I think that the idea is to infuse the picture with a sense of kinetic energy but doing it immediately from the start is jarring, the audience is still trying to become familiar with the visual language and the resulting opening comes off as more frenetic than kinetic.
Once I caught up to what was going on, I found myself enjoying the story and the style on display. Where I thought I would be irritated by the narration and direct usage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, I was pleasantly surprised that it supplemented the story well. I also realized how much I missed the book and his writing. Like most people, I was assigned this book in high school English but unlike most of my classmates, I discovered about halfway through that I really loved the story. Gatsby’s sense of isolation and loneliness as well as Nick’s inability to acclimate to the excessive affluence and irresponsibility around him were very familiar ideas to me at the time. I did have trouble with the method that was used to introduce the book to us. We were assigned one or two chapters at a time and then would discuss in class the themes and symbolism being used. This was good to an extent because at the time I had no eye for those things yet (I think I still owned a few shoe boxes full of Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine at that point) but I became impatient and had to skip ahead of the assigned chapters; I was invested. Everyone reads and processes things differently, but this teaching method I liken to going on an amazing date but stopping every half hour to talk about how great the last half hour had been. Either way, the novel spoke to me at the right time in my life, as the real classics often do.
One of the strongest things that this film has going for it is the casting. I’m usually not a fan of Tobey Maguire, mostly for what he did to Spiderman (that’s petty, I know, but alongside those shoe boxes were stacks of The Amazing Spiderman….I may or may not still own a few of those) but he is the appropriately youthful and wide eyed moralistic choice to portray Nick. And for DiCaprio, I’m getting really tired of liking that guy as much as I do. I continue to be surprised at how startlingly effective he is at playing aloof and lonely for someone so damn handsome. But the real prize goes to the leading lady: Carey Mulligan was genetically engineered to play Daisy. At this point in her career she should be paid royalties for the usage of the Wounded Angel character, she must have it trademarked. Her ability to emote with her eyes is remarkable and damning, after seeing her do the same in Drive, I simultaneously want to fall in love with her and beat up who ever is making her cry, immediately. I wish that someone, somewhere would please cast her in a romantic comedy, I’m tired of seeing her cry all the time.
There was apparently some hubbub raised about the use of contemporary music, specifically rap and hip hop, in a film that takes place in the 1920s, and for once, I am on Baz’s (Baz’? Baz’z?) side of the argument. In order to express a time period and its excessive hedonism to a generation that has no concept of anyone’s hedonism outside of their own, what better way to communicate that than with the pop music of today. Which, like the pop music of any young generation, projects the boundless energy of optimism found only in youthful drunken immortality. The Roaring Twenties were feverish with this energy and I think it’s a novel and ingenious way to communicate that to a modern audience.
I found myself, while watching DiCaprio’s performance, reminded of the first film interpretation I’d seen starring Robert Redford as Gatsby. This was a version we’d watched in high school after finishing the book and, even back then before I had any kind of vocabulary for film or insight, I knew right away that it was awful. Probably not by the standards of when it was made but it was far too loyal to the source material, making for a dull, melodramatic movie with no real passion or substance. The story itself is good but it’s the prose that makes it great, and a loyal but tame adaption is only going to turn into a Cliff’s Notes version of the book; supplementary and without a soul. There was, however, something about the two lead’s performances as Gatsby that I realized had similarities, things that I probably missed the first time around because I didn’t understand the source material. When both characters are introduced there is a woodenness to their mannerisms, a kind of hokeyness. As a kid, I thought this was just bad acting (forgive me, I didn’t know who Robert Redford was back then), but seeing it again in DiCaprio I realized that it was all part of his act. Gatsby was simply always performing in a role that he never truly nailed. I know that it was obvious that he was affecting the personality of a well born aristocrat but on the page this performance is one thing, seeing a gifted actor like DiCaprio or Redford literally acting poorly is disorienting at first. The constant ‘old sport’s become grating and obvious as the movie carries on, but, fortunately, at least in this modern retelling, when Gatsby’s true emotions and characteristics slip through, they are performed with beautiful veracity.
In the emotional denouement, Tom Buchanan provokes Gatsby to the point of losing his temper; his facade slips away into rage and confusion for a moment and, in that moment, he loses the game he has been playing all along. Much like Oz the Great and Powerful, his air of mystery and cool confidence is ripped away and it is fitting that this is the exact moment in the film where Baz Lurhmann’s own curtain is lifted. Where the garishness and energy were appropriate prior to this moment, the real emotions come out on display from this point on in the story and this is where the director’s failings become unavoidably apparent. Unlike the extensive visual hues used in the film, when it comes to the more subtle and nuanced emotionality, this storyteller is only capable of painting in primary colors. If people are mad they are screaming, if they are upset they are weeping, and where I wanted to be invested in all the conflicting pathos that were intersecting on screen I couldn’t concentrate because there was so much noise going on, literally and visually. Not to mention the symbolism simply stops being symbolism when you come out right and describe exactly what the symbol means. I get it. Stop zooming in on T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes with the voiceover reminding us that they are like God’s eyes, watching over everything. I got it the first time the inference was made earlier in the movie. I got it fifteen years ago in high school when my teacher pointed it out. And I’m not even going to started on the green light at the end of the dock.
That aside, I did enjoy seeing this. I’m glad I did, if only to be reminded in a new way of the source material. All due credit to Baz Luhrmann for the direction he took it in, but in the end, like Gatsby, he may have only been affecting a more talented and gifted filmmaker than he really is.