In America, our cultural institutions tend towards blowing shit up — think Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and various buff villain-thrashing superheroes. Yet for all our notorious bubblegum philistinism, we read too, and there are certain literary characters that are quite beloved: Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield, Ignatius Reilly, and Captain Ahab, to name but a few, all of whom are so peculiar to our imaginations, it would be offensive for any filmmaker to appropriate them in some caricatural form. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is another such character only the most audacious artist would hazard to interpret in cinematic light.
The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel for no small reasons. The story’s titular character makes good on the American Dream, accomplishes the most spectacular romantic gesture in all of literature, and dies tragically, his rise and fall and all too brief happiness narrated in exquisite prose by a fair and compassionate friend. It doesn’t just define the Jazz Age generation, but America itself: our material obsessions, class divisions, brutal selfishness, careless violence, and yet, also our occasional noble impulse towards doing the right thing. Published almost ninety years ago it remains extraordinarily readable, and in fact, every generation is introduced to it in middle or high school. I myself have read it at least a half dozen times, coming back to it every few years as one returns to a refuge well known and thoroughly loved. If Gatsby is not sacred, it is at the very least, a national treasure.
The Great Spaz-BeEnter Baz Luhrmann, an Australian filmmaker with a boom boom aesthetic. From his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge, he tends to lobotomize his audience with bombastic anachronistic dance numbers performed uptempo by shrill ninnies, manically spliced together with attention deficit MTV-style jump cuts that leave many muttering WTF and contemplating four hits of aspirin. His style is so over-the-top, Australians have even adapted his name into their lexicon in the event something is performed with too much intensity, as in, “OMG, he just bazzed the shit out of that.”
Full disclosure: I was horrified when I first saw the film trailer for The Great Gatsby. To put it in contemporary idiomatic terms, I was bazzed out of my mind. Worst of all was the revelation of a 3D version. How dare an Australian, especially one as obnoxious as Luhrmann, treat an American masterpiece as a dumbed down Cliffnotes-condensed soul-free blockbuster, tailored to summer vacation adolescents with rapid-fire mouse-click attention spans? Sure I played with GI Joe and Transformers as a kid, but their adaptations by Hollywood as disposable spectacles never bothered me; on the other hand, messing with Fitzgerald was tantamount to sacrilege, to pissing on a legend’s grave. Not only would I hate Luhrmann’s effort, I was ready to take real pleasure in my loathing.
So imagine my pleasant surprise when I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t love it either, the operative word being “pleasant.” It’s no masterpiece but it’s not exactly profane either. It’s mostly a loyal rendering of the novel, much of Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose intact, well acted, and rating relatively low on the Baz scale of migraine-inducement (perhaps though I wouldn’t be so generous had I not watched it in 2D). On the most important scenes, Luhrmann hits some right notes, so that loyal Fitzgeraldians (such as this writer) are entertained by his riff. It’s definitely not great, but it’s good enough.But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. Click To Tweet It is never easy adapting any book into a film, especially one as beautifully written as The Great Gatsby, so Luhrmann and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce, establish a narrative conceit in which Nick Carroway, the story’s narrator (Tobey Maguire), is reflecting on his friendship with Gatsby from a sanitarium in in the Midwest. It’s a rather bold liberty taken by the director, but a competent, perhaps necessary trick to not only frame the story but incorporate its most lucid prose (though it was a leap to have the character Nick Carroway compose his thoughts into a novel so that we have suddenly a cheap little happy ending– the struggling writer’s redemption, one more American Dream coming true?).
Maguire makes a good Nick Carroway, a greenhorn New Yorker working in bonds, an above average everyman with a trusting face that invites the divulgence of rather personal confidences. He lives in a little cottage next to a grand (albeit digitalized) fairy tale castle inhabited by a mysterious man who throws lavish parties, as it turns out, with the singular hope that a woman he once loved and now married in her own palatial residence across the bay, might attend and perhaps recover the past with him. The story then, roughly described, is a ménage à trois involving Jay Gatsby and the Buchanans, Tom and Daisy.
Australian actor Joel Edgerton nails millionaire simpleton Tom Buchanan’s rough self-centered posturing. His Tom is Old Money petulance, threatened equally by new money parvenus like Gatsby and “the colored races.” Tom, seemingly incapable of love and trust, lives in a very small, disenchanted world. I didn’t think British actress Carey Mulligan — best known for playing ingenues — could pull off Daisy Buchanan, a bitter scion’s wife, but Mulligan musters just enough vapidity to conjure Daisy, whose bubbly, banal non-sequiturs are so telling of the pampered, vacuous life she has accepted with her philandering husband. Her Daisy is pretty, not beautiful, and exhausted before her time.
Daisy only really snaps to life once she rekindles her love affair with Jay Gatsby. Now I’m not sure Leonardo DiCaprio was the right choice for Gatsby. I don’t dislike DiCaprio, but I’ve never understood his continuing fame. He’s definitely an intelligent actor, but I’ve always found his intensity somewhat forced or overdone. There also remains the aura of the child actor about him — he never seemed to grow up, or at least I cannot seem to separate the adolescent DiCaprio from the adult one. Moreover, he is Leonardo DiCaprio, one of those actors so famous it is difficult for the audience member to ignore his celebrity, suspending belief. Thus I had a problem with his casting as Gatsby, a by-his-bootstraps success story in the black market economy. It goes contrary to Hollywood’s economic logic, of course, but the film might have been better with a talented theatrical unknown. (Watching The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t help feeling that DiCaprio was reprising his role in Titanic. It’s a similar character in remarkably similar circumstances, a charming riffraff in love with a wealthy debutante, romance thwarted by a wealthy rival suitor, culminating in a tragic death.)
DiCaprio as Gatsby is a metaphor for the film’s overall artifice, in which everything is just plain unreal. Gatsby’s famous parties are indescribably hyperactive productions emceed by a Cab Calloway ripoff, the dancers choreographed to Jay Z tunes sung by Beyonce and Andre 3000 (even Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is anachronistic, having been written two years after the story takes place in 1922). Luhrmann’s song and dance scenes are always very camp, as if he is doing a feverish homage to the most egregious cliches of Broadway musicals. His interpretation of the Roaring Twenties is that of squawking peacocks prancing on Ritalin-laced champagne. It’s a fun party, sure, if you played hooky from school only to spend all that freedom watching MTV’s Total Request Live.
But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. And though it tries too hard to filter a historical New York for a modern and easily distracted audience, its fantastical environment has some magical elements. The film, like the novel, is rife with awkward moments shared between people who don’t really like or respect one another. Luhrmann, while probably the last person you’d want to share a double cappuccino with, does seem to have a deft touch with his actors. Their heartfelt aspirations and disappointments (even DiCaprio’s Gatsby) manage to transcend the green screen effect. There is just enough pathos in the performances to balance the enthusiasm of CGI effects artists.So what you have in our generation’s Gatsby is not a work of art, but competent entertainment. Fitzgerald was a thoroughly successful writer — the voice of his generation — because he was very au courant. I couldn’t help wondering whether he would condone or condemn this very modern take on his novel. Would he have been embarrassed by the spectacle? Or proud of its terrific box office success and its marquee stature? It’s impossible to say, of course, because F. Scott was a very complicated artist, infinitely more so than the Hollywood philistines attempting to profit off his name recognition.
Of course, directors don’t spend a year or two of their lives just making anything. What was the allure for the Baz? Does he see something of himself in Gatsby, a misunderstood self-made genius who brings people together (actors and audience) to celebrate what he envisions a beautiful bacchanalian vision of existence? It seems like all of Baz Luhrmann’s movies, in their very peculiar noise levels, are more or less about Baz Luhrmann. I am obviously not a fan, but I’ll go so far to say this for him: at least he has a personal vision, so much so that his name has become part of our vernacular. He doesn’t fail altogether. His adaptation is low grade irreverence — it could have been a hell of a lot worse.
Nevertheless, I would like to finish this review with an appeal to Mr. Luhrmann: we’ll give you a free pass now, but word to the wise, attempting to baz Holden Caulfield with your lurid hyperkinesia and faux musical numbers denouncing “phonies” will not be forgiven as clever irony. Any more tampering with our beloved classics is done so with considerable bodily risk.