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The Great Gatsby

May 12, 2013
The Great Gatsby

Going into Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, one hard truth must be acknowledged: its title notwithstanding, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is good, at best. It’s a facile thumbnail sketch, replete with simple truths about money and desire, and symbolism so stunningly obvious and explicit that any high-schooler can have it beaten through his skull. Nobody should be worried that Luhrmann is about to “ruin” a pillar of the Western Canon with a modern, irreverent treatment, 3-D cinematography, and a score mixed up by Jay-Z and Craig Armstrong. And, for what it’s worth, Luhrmann presents as good a film adaptation as we can find.

In case you either did not grow up in the United States — or you somehow missed the book when you did — the story uses Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as a narrator, telling the story of a summer he spent trying to make his career as a bond broker in 1920s New York. He takes a house — a disused groundskeeper’s cottage, really — nestled among the mansions of Long Island. His second cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives nearby; she had been a debutante in Louisville who married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), the scion of some incredibly wealthy old-money family. Once back in contact, Daisy tries setting Nick up with her friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a famous professional golfer, but Nick is unaccustomed to traveling in such circles, despite having attended Yale with Tom. It doesn’t help his unease to find that Tom is carrying on an affair with some girl in Queens (Isla Fisher) who is herself cheating on her garage-owning husband (Jason Clarke).

He can’t well escape, though; it turns out he lives next to Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious and wealthy man who throws huge, sprawling parties at his mansion. Gatsby introduces him to the “gambler” Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) — think Arnold Rothstein — and asks one favor: that Nick help him get back in touch with Daisy, as the two had once been deeply in love.

All the familiar notes are here — the green light, the yellow roadster, the watching eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg — all quite in their remembered places. For once it’s very likely that most of the audience has encountered the story in text before, and the textuality of the story seems very important to Luhrmann. He fleshes out the framing device, placing Nick not just as narrator but as author of a journal he keeps in a sanitarium after his assumedly post-1929 “crack-up”, which recalls Fitzgerald’s own. And Fitzgerald’s literal prose is sometimes so important that Luhrmann floats it to be read onscreen as the characters mouth the familiar lines.

Is it a bit much? Well, sort of, but that’s what you get from Baz Luhrmann. In fact, I found myself at times wishing he’d push it even further. The parties, in particular, could be disappointing. There was clearly a lot going on as flappers bounced this way and that, but the camera glides serenely over the scenery. Yes, we are thus “both within and without”, but this from the man who brought us Moulin Rouge? Maybe it was rendered impossible by the decision to film in 3-D, but I want a point-of-view that whips around the floor like an eggbeater from one scene of debauchery to the next, all timed to Jay-Z’s thumping take on Jazz Age classics. These people are all having fun; why am I not?

In a way, this lays the basis for the fundamental inversion of Fitzgerald’s story. The novel peels back the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous to expose something hollow and diseased underneath, and holds up Gatsby — and Nick, in his way — as a tragic fool to have wanted to live in that world. Tom is venal and corrupt; Wolfsheim is a jackal; Jordan is a leech; and Daisy is one of the biggest twits in all of modern literature.

But we’ve romanticized wealth, and while Edgerton’s Tom may have more physical presence than Bruce Dern’s in the 1974 version, he’s lost the slimy sneer. Jordan and Wolfsheim have both faded, the former to a plot device and the latter to the only point of color not carrying a serving tray. And Mulligan’s Daisy may be simple and easily muddled, but she’s not opportunistically so. She makes us want to hear her lines about being a pretty fool as an anguished, proto-feminist cri de coeur, when really she’s using them as premise and aspiration, and not as a regretful conclusion. In short, she makes us want to sympathize with the spoiled brat instead of grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking until sense or a concussion sets in. She pulled the same trick in the sequel to Wall Street.

But as the original Wall Street proved, even if you speak the message forwards instead of backwards there are still plenty of people who will mix it up themselves. Just as it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, it’s impossible to make a truly anti-wealth film. To attempt an adaptation of The Great Gatsby in the first place means glamorizing the excess, and Luhrmann delivers on that. It does look very nice to be as rich as Gatsby and the Buchanans are, and as an illustration of Fitzgerald’s story it provides a fun, if not exactly wild, ride. Like the novel, the filmed Gatsby only manages to be good.

Worth It: yes, mostly for the visuals.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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