The last time—full disclosure, the only time—I read The Great Gatsby was in the tenth grade, and quite coincidentally Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s very American, very necessary reminder that opulence can’t buy you everything feels sophomorically frozen. Luhrmann directs with all the misplaced assuredness and faux-inventiveness that characterize a typical high schooler’s creative output, so much so that you can practically hear him through the screen exclaiming, “Holy shit, I will look brilliant if I modernize this novel that everybody’s read. Layer on the Jay-Z!!!”
This attitude lends itself easily to the assumption that nobody has ever thought to adapt The Great Gatsby for contemporary audiences;* I’m not sure Luhrmann realizes that the story particularly and appropriately matches our recession-saddled times of class divergence. Yes, he made the movie, but his insight falls well short of genius or profound revelation. No worries, because Luhrmann doesn’t commit to thematic parallels anyway, opting instead for techniques of adaptation that cluster in your head as visionary concepts when you brainstorm ideas for a future movie but jettison as silly after production begins. Luhrmann’s creative methods come across more as dumbing down the book than a sleek, cosmopolitan approach. He’s after the latter, and you readily sign up expecting that with Luhrmann; see Romeo + Juliet especially and note the “I know what the cool kids want” use of the plus sign in the title. But even though most of us haven’t opened our English-class copy in a few years, that doesn’t mean audiences can’t handle more than just a Spark Notes synopsis, which a Luhrmann adapation usually entails. I don’t believe a successful film translation of The Great Gatsby is an impossibility—imagine Martin Scorsese’s interpretation of the source material; hell, he has DiCaprio under permanent retainer already—but with this most recent one in theaters now, there’s none any studio would develop any time soon. Might as well stare at a green light every night.
*The last mainstream Gatsby feature arrived in theaters in 1974; it stars Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston. It also sucked.
For purposes of summary I can say that the characters are as you remember them. In fact, the movie’s best attribute is its casting. Leonardo DiCaprio fits Gatsby with the room-commanding presence befitting that character; DiCaprio can easily combine his physically attractive qualities and impeccable taste for clothing (key for the scene that everybody remembers, where Gatsby empties his luxuriantly filled closets for Daisy) with a melancholy air of longing readily betrayed by his nouveau-riche affectations.* I am no fan of Tobey Maguire—his characters have a tendency to whine—but he makes a fine choice for Nick, the young and nebbish narrator left to play third wheel and then transcribe the emotional decay wrought by this union of souls. Joel Edgerton (who I love from Animal Kingdom; he’s also popping up a lot in the States lately) packs the brutish qualities of Tom Buchanan that mask a sincere, if outdated and racist, worldview. Daisy is more cipher than fully formed character—this problem is not unique to the film—but Carey Mulligan has a certain gravitas that can, at times, transcend Daisy’s limitations in expressing love and loss.
*Oddly, Gatsby shares plenty—perhaps too much for Gatsby’s tastes—with DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie from Django Unchained; both indulge in the toys and fetes of the wealthy and naively struggle to articulate their discomfort in their loneliness. It’s what they strive for that accounts for the difference between them as the how infuses them with similar traits.
While the actors meet their matches in the characters they portray, the film is too simplistic, too intent on pummeling your eyes and ears to do anything more than test your recall and engage your analytic abilities. Do you remember the green light? Great, because the camera is going on zoom in on it in the opening shot, and about fifty times following that, lest you forgot about its symbolic importance; at least the film correctly interprets the green light as a symbol for dreams not obtained instead of dreams to be obtained. The same goes for the characters, as I was intimating above; there’s a flush of recognition (“That’s who they should have cast as Fill In Character’s Name!”) but Luhrmann affords the actors little beyond their uncanny resemblance to the way we’ve envisaged Gatsby, Nick, Tom, and Daisy. If the movie wants to unmoor the book at least partially from the 1920s, the characters remain as two-dimensional as the novel’s pages.
The most grating example of this adaptation’s surface treatment of the novel comes from its decision to sprinkle the screen with several passages pulled from the book; I mean you literally read the words as if they were subtitles to the yarn Nick spins in voice-over.* Yes, the letters contained in “…borne back ceaselessly into the past” gracefully materialize for your viewing and reading pleasure. This is an attempt to somehow convey the richness of Fitzgerald’s prose to moviegoers, but it ignores that, with movies, sumptuous images can also do the lion’s share of same work accomplished by the author’s lavish words on the page. It’s another way of saying, “Fitzgerald used big words, bro,” but the method is corny and superfluous; a Gatsby adaptation should pay homage to Fitzgerald’s gifts, but Nick’s voice-over and the visuals themselves would have sufficed.
*One of the film’s conceits—I suppose one of its “modern” updates—is that Nick tells part of his story to, and then is encouraged to write it down by, a psychiatrist, another superfluous detail Luhrmann has added. I can confidently posit that the audience would have empathized with Nick’s despair without a psychiatrist; his drinking alone would get that across.
Even worse, in some instances Luhrmann’s Gatsby doesn’t care whether you have a working memory at all and sometimes acts like you haven’t paid attention. Nick’s mention that Gatsby doesn’t normally issue invitations to his parties is repeated just after by the socialite Jordan Baker; Gatsby’s assertion that Meyer Wolfsheim has the police commissioner on his payroll apparently needed clarification that the guy firing finger guns in the corner booth of the barbershop speakeasy was the commissioner himself. Moreover, Luhrmann does much to prevent your mind from spinning into gear by playing music the whole running time, and while I confess that Mr. Carter’s (and Mr. West’s) “No Church in the Wild” popped early on, it drains you to learn that the music never…fucking…stops—except for one scene. That one scene is Tom’s confrontational encounter with Gatsby in the Plaza Hotel, and it works well because ostensibly, scenes without any sound besides the actors’ voices and a fan’s whirring can usually breathe, a convention turned on its head because of the palpable heat—it’s set in the summer—and the stifling, brooding tension fraying between Daisy’s pair of suitors. This scene provides a what-could’ve-been alternative for Luhrmann’s Gatsby; the visuals are sensuous enough for you to wonder why the music didn’t die down long after Gatsby’s parties did. To speak of the 1920s is to speak of music, but too much of it, whether jazz, rap, or pop, promises to smother some of the characters’ seething anger and descents into depression.
As a result, you certainly have a feast for the senses before you, but The Great Gatsby leaves you bloated and a little too exhausted for a treatment that doesn’t amount to a fresh adaptation; it’s sort of like a pop quiz compared to an actual discussion of what invests the novel with its timeless qualities (though it is very of a piece with its time, of course). I suppose you’d savor the film if you were as loaded as Zelda Fitzgerald, but if that were true I’d recommend you just stay at the bar and listen to Jay-Z there.