The best parts of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby are the costumes and the music. If this were any other director, that would be an incredible insult. Still, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is like the infamous green light from the novel, forever receding before us.
When I saw that Luhrmann was going to be directing this American literary classic, I was “a man of infinite hope.” Who better to breathe some style and liveliness into a novel set in the Roaring Twenties than the man who made the most overplayed Shakespeare play hip and fresh? As an English teacher who has been teaching this novel for almost a decade, I was thrilled at the potential greatness of this film. If Luhrmann has anything, it’s a unique style and this film is no disappointment in that regard. The flashy 20s costumes, Gatsby’s gaudy castle and garish parties, and even the filthy valley of ashes possess a surrealism that make them unique works of art. I only wish we would have seen more of Luhrmann’s expressionism. Unlike Moulin Rouge, where the visual style pervades every aspect of the film, the surrealism in this film seems unnatural. Although, perhaps it is the choppy editing and pervading voiceovers that do not allow for the film to have that natural flow and unity found in Rouge.
While I feel Tobey Maguire is a wonderful fit for Nick Carraway, his voiceover narration quickly becomes tiresome. The frequent returns to the sanatorium become intrusive. Listening to Maguire’s weasely tone of voice for most of the film is difficult to be sure, but it is the superfluous narration of aspects of the film that are obvious to even the semi-intelligent viewer that becomes tedious. It is as if Luhrmann feels his film has to cater to those who are too lazy to read a film and he has to give us the Sparknotes version narrated by Peter Parker. The device Luhrmann employs to implement this narration is even worse than Spider-man The Musical. While I enjoy the creative interpretation of Nick regretting his days of debauchery back East, I hate the idea of having him writing his novel as therapy while residing in a sanitorium with a poor man’s Wilford Brimley as a doctor. It’s just a horrible cliché.
When not monotonously narrating, Maguire’s performance as Nick is wonderfully authentic. He effectively portrays Nick’s open-hearted honesty and his passively employed moral code. While in the novel there is no indication that Nick becomes a “grotesque alcoholic” as indicated by the psychiatrist in the film, it is not a far jump to portray Nick as a wallflower who suddenly finds himself intoxicated because of the insistence of the more raucous people around him. Nick is a follower. While his conscience makes him uneasy with the East’s depravity, he never adamantly speaks out against it. Nick’s man-crush on Gatsby also comes across wonderfully as Maguire is a natural as the nice guy who everyone takes advantage of and no one takes seriously.
Daisy on the other hand is a bore. Daisy is supposed to shine. Daisy is “the king’s daughter, the golden girl.” She is supposed to have an irresistible charm and an “exhilarating ripple of her voice … like a wild tonic” that draws others towards her. Carey Mulligan is so busy pouting and making doe-eyes that she fails to be stunning or desirable in any capacity.
This might largely be due to the most glaring flaw in the film – the omission of the most important line in the novel, “Her voice is full of money.” When Gatsby says this, Nick realizes that this is why so many men, Gatsby included, are drawn to Daisy. Thus the reader realizes that Gatsby is in love with the idea of Daisy. Daisy is the ultimate prize and by winning Daisy’s heart, Gatsby legitimizes his narcissistic self-image. Instead, Luhrmann chooses to focus on the romance of the forbidden lovers and entices the readers to emotionally invest in their relationship. While he is successful in evoking pity for Gatsby’s hopeless romanticism, the audience is not charmed in any capacity by Daisy nor are they as disgusted with her shallowness as they should be when she chooses Tom. Sure, Mulligan’s Daisy is infuriatingly weak spirited, but she is too busy pouting all the time that she fails to realize that Daisy chooses to play the pretty fool because that’s how she gets what she wants. Mulligan’s Daisy is a fool by default, not by choice. Thus the audience does not despise Daisy for her superficial selfishness as much as they despise Tom for his bullheaded elitism.
The performances are not all disappointing. While I initially had my doubts about Joel Edgerton’s portrayal of Tom Buchanon, he is pleasantly devious as the adulterous brute. Elizabeth Debicki is equally perfect in her portrayal of the lean, athletic, and elegant Jordan Baker as is Isla Fisher as the sultry, brash Myrtle Wilson. Finally, while it is not Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest performance, his Gatsby is both charming and tragic. He brings just the right desperation to the character. My two favorite scenes in the book are also my two favorite in the movie. The film brings to life in dramatic fashion the tension and emotional release of Gatsby and Daisy’s reunion and their confrontation with Tom. These two scenes demonstrate how a change in genre (from novel to dramatic narrative) can actually enhance the effect of the original.
While Luhrmann misses on the corruption of the American dream, he does pay tribute to the novel’s messages about the impassibility of social boundaries and the classist/racist attitudes of the wealthy. Yet the most intriguing aspect of Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is his inclusion of black characters throughout the film. While these characters never take a prominent role in the story, they often are the central figures of several shots in the film – especially when the jazz infused hip hop takes center stage. Fitzgerald has taken considerable criticism over the years for his ignorance of the black roots of jazz in a novel that is supposed to represent the Jazz Age. Through the purposeful inclusion of black characters in these scenes, Luhrmann is acknowledging the Harlem influence on American popular culture that Fitzgerald failed to do in his novel.
Overall, I would like to thank Luhrmann for his adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Luhrmann got enough of it right that I can show it to my students and enough of it wrong that students can’t just watch the movie instead of reading the book!
Story – 3 out of 5 Nerdskulls; Directing – 3.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls; Acting – 3.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls; Visuals – 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls
OVERALL: 3.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls