Film Review: The Great Gatsby

Jay-Z meets Jay G in this hyperventilated version of F. Scott’s eloquent novel about an enigmatic self-made millionaire—the film isn’t for purists, but Baz should generate a buzz with young audiences.

For all the impieties and vulgarities associated with the Baz Luhrmann School of Adaptation, it must be noted that his nouveau version of The Great Gatsby is, whatever its flaws and merits, faithful to the venerated classic. Strip away the mash-up soundtrack featuring Jay-Z, Bryan Ferry and Jack White, the meretricious stereoscopics and the Bazesque fantasias, and you have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel in situ. The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the eyes of Doc Eckleburg staring affectlessly into the ruinous valley of ashes, are as prominent in the film as in your dog-eared Cliffs Notes. But Luhrmann studiously includes the details, the grace notes, as it were, in Fitzgerald’s jazz-age primer. We get gangster Meyer Wolfsheim showing off his tie tack made from a human molar (cuff links in the book), and Tom Buchanan packing contraband whiskey in a towel for the fateful soiree at the Plaza, where, as in the book, a telephone book inexplicably falls from its hook—these winks and nods to Fitzgerald suggest that Luhrmann and his collaborators went to considerable trouble to establish their bona fides in order to take larger liberties with the literary masterpiece.

These liberties are significant, but, for the most part, matters of style and sensibility. Luhrmann’s Gatsby, like his 1996 Romeo + Juliet, is bold, brazen and splendiferous, a word well-suited to our eponymous protagonist’s enchanted castle that rises above the mists of the Long Island Sound. The director’s wife, Catherine Martin, who does production and costume design for his films, tends to gild the lilies, and then some. Gatsby’s parties are packed to the mahogany rafters with kohl-eyed flappers, zoot-suited trombonists and double-breasted stock swindlers, the self-conscious bacchanal choreographed to hip-hop, swing and, inevitably, Gershwin. It’s Moulin Rouge meets the Roaring Twenties, with a bass track that bounces a riot of confetti and champagne bubbles over the audience in superfluous 3D.

The movie is gorgeous to watch if you enjoy this sort of spectacle, and occasionally Luhrmann embellishes some aspect of the novel, dare we say it, brilliantly. His depiction of the aforementioned valley of ashes, an industrial wasteland on the outskirts of New York City where, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, the story’s narrative arrives like death in the cooling twilight, visualizes one of the story’s central conceits as though the artists Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows and Charles Demuth collaborated on the set. The director’s interpretation of another of the book’s pivotal scenes, when Gatsby tries to impress Tom’s wife, Daisy, with his wealth by spreading before her his collection of imported shirts, transforms an awkward moment into poetry. You can’t watch the scene and not believe, at least for a moment, in their love for each other, and you cannot believe in the story if you do not believe in their romance.

Luhrmann is rarely so subtle, however, and that is the difference between reading Gatsby and watching this adaptation. Early in the novel, when Tom takes Nick Carraway on an outing to the city that turns into a debauched soiree, Fitzgerald lets us know that Tom and his mistress are off making love as Nick, having returned from buying cigarettes, settles down “discreetly” in the empty living room to read a book he’s lifted from the coffee table. The business is dispatched in a sentence, although the scene itself, which is more about Nick and his personal demons than Tom’s adultery, goes on for ten pages in a short novel. Luhrmann takes the opposite approach, having Nick sit alone, abandoned as in the novel, but forced to listen to the thumps and exclamations emanating off-screen—Tom and his mistress in flagrante delicto. It’s opera buffo for a PG-13 audience.

Luhrmann makes one major change translating the book to screen: He creates a framing device for narrator Nick, who in the film isn’t just telling Gatsby’s story, but is writing it as therapy as he recovers in a sanitarium back West, where he, and everyone else in the novel, grew up. Luhrmann and his writing partner Craig Pearce, who worked on Romeo + Juliet as well as Moulin Rouge, justify this tampering by claiming that Fitzgerald closely identified with his narrator (“Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m real or whether I’m a character in one of my novels”) and that he intended the hero of his final, uncompleted book, The Last Tycoon, to be writing it while rehabbing. Not so long ago, it would have been artistic sacrilege to assume that author and narrator were one and the same, although to be fair, Fitzgerald was famous as much for his lifestyle as for his prose, and undoubtedly contemporaries read him because he was a celebrity like, well, Leonardo DiCaprio.
DiCaprio makes a good Gatsby, if for no other reason that he looks great (pun intended) in a pink pinstripe suit. Audiences can be forgiven for conflating his Jay Gatsby with his J. Edgar, since the characters speak with the same contrived inflection. Tobey Maguire proves an odd choice for Nick as he, too, has elocution issues—one can’t imagine him reading Gatsby as an audiobook—but maybe Luhrmann understands the character, and Fitzgerald, better than those of us who might wish for a more sonorous, and charismatic, narrator. Carey Mulligan is too British and too vulnerable to play Daisy, and in any case, there’s too little chemistry between her and DiCaprio. Joel Edgerton is well-cast as Tom, although like everyone else, he’s asked to play the role broadly. (Think of Robert De Niro as Capone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, and you’ve grasped the histrionics here.) Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke stand out as Myrtle and George Wilson, those colorful denizens of the valley of ashes. Elizabeth Debicki gives us an athletic, statuesque Jordan Baker, a role that gets short shrift in the film.

The fact is, the cast is upstaged by the production: We remember Gatsby’s yellow Duesenberg, his smart collars and his “old sport” catch phrase better than we remember him. No matter. Like Romeo + Juliet, a DVD that remains in demand when English classes get around to Shakespeare, Luhrmann’s Gatsby will be welcomed into the national syllabus. This adaptation was never meant for enthusiasts of Fitzgerald or American literature or fine drama. But teenagers will enjoy the film, and chances are they will better understand the novel having seen it. Some may be inspired to read it.