Summary: Today Locke Peterseim reviews The Great Gatsby, a very meta story about the jazz age before the crash — a time with strong similarities to our own — made into a film whose superficiality (e.g., ignoring the depth of the characters) mirrors that of our own.
Reposted here with his generous permission.
It’s possible to both love the giddy, flamboyant excesses and musical abandon of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 fever-dream Moulin Rouge and appreciate the rich prose and all-American soul-searching of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby and still come away from Luhrmann’s new film version of the literary classic feeling that just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they should.
On the other hand, no sane movie-goer can say they didn’t know what they were getting into when they bought a ticket for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby starring Leo DiCaprio (co-star of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) as the enigmatic millionaire, Tobey Mcguire as Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan as Gatsby’s lost love, Daisy.
And the first half of Luhrmann’s Gatsby is the expected fizzy (almost besotted) visual and sonic mash up, complete with swooping cameras and dazzling CGI. There’s a full-blown rave at Charles Foster Kane’s old Xanadu place and Jay-Z’s spinning ‘20s standards!
Aside from bombarding us into twitching submission with his Style Attack, Luhrmann wants — and frankly succeeds to an enjoyable extent — in re-purposing Fitzgerald’s vision of ‘20s wealth and excess with raps and rhythms more familiar to our 21st-century electro-techno digital brains. (For example, the director’s take on Gatsby’s hypnotic green dock light comes off less introspective and yearning and more phantasmagorical, like the absinthe-fever Green Fairy of Moulin Rouge.)
And while Luhrmann keeps Gatsby set in the early ‘20s, the director lives in frantic, over-cranked service of surface artifice as the end, not the means. In the past, I’ve found Baz’s hyper cinematic verve enjoyable, even invigorating, but around the halfway point of this film, as Gatsby’s doomed obsession with Daisy takes full root at the center of the narrative, I remembered something important: I’ve always thought the actual plot and blandly enigmatic characters of The Great Gatsby were incredibly dull.
Not that I don’t appreciate Fitzgerald’s novel, with its portrait of the American psyche and insistent, languid prose, but it was never the story that held my attention. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby and Nick aren’t interesting because of what they do (which isn’t much), but because of what torments and drives them to create themselves.
And that’s where Luhrmann lost me and his fizzy Gatsby film turned into a two-hour-plus slog. The Australian director only gives voice-over lip service to Fitzgerald’s prose and themes (in a clunky, lazy framing device that has Nick journaling all this a few years later from a sanatorium where he’s being treated–with a nod to F. Scott–for “morbid alcoholism”).
Luhrmann’s much more interested in telling yet another epic, shallow love story — one where the 15-years-older, couple-dozen-pounds-thicker star of Titanic once again expires tragically in the water. In slow motion. Stripped of any meaning beyond “Love hurts,” by its end, the film’s daring, high-dive bravado becomes a belly flop of boredom.
Luhrmann has a great touch for silver-screen spectacle and a keen ear and eye for pop mash-up alchemy, but like many pure stylists, he has little understanding or interest in the complicated, contradictory, nuanced inner lives of characters. There’s no room for character subtly or depth amid the film’s stupefying glamor and its Tommy Hilfiger parade of clothes, jewelry and cars.
That’s not to say Luhrmann’s cast isn’t competent, even at times impressive. Di Caprio, McGuire, Mulligan, and a nearly unrecognizable Joel Eagerton (as brutish Tom) all do solid work, but must content themselves with knowing that in a Baz Luhrmann movie the cast are little more sparkling pieces in the glittering tapestry.
When Gatsby finally introduces himself to Nick at one of his “amusement park” parties, Luhrmann literally sets off fireworks behind Di Caprio as the actor does his best to portray Gatsby’s famously “understanding” smile of “eternal reassurance.” (What actually appears on Leo’s tightly tanned face looks more like the smug smirk of someone who’s either about to sell you a used car or struggling with gas pains.)
Nearly every line, every gesture, every flourish in the film is taken straight from the book and super-jacked up by Luhrmann’s manic aesthetic. But while the film hones very closely to the novel, the deeper problem is that the director and his co-writer Craig Pearce keep the book’s events, but swap out its themes for a dreamy love story for Twilight fans.
You can’t adapt a classic novel because it’s a classic novel and then skip blithely away from its deeper meaning when you find it too complex for either your own understanding or your notion of your audience’s. The only reason Luhrmann made the film was because it was a well-known classic of 20th-century American literature, and that’s the only reason we’re paying attention to it. (Well, that and Leo. And Jay-Z.)
Fitzgerald saw the façade of the American Dream but realized that façade, personified by Gatsby, was the whole point of America. At best, Luhrmann’s Gatsby comes off as a weak indictment of the glitzy, party-all-the-time mentality of the idle (new and old) rich, instead of an exploration and condemnation of the very American West impulses that create it. The film shares none of Fitzgerald’s cultural and anthropological obsession with class and wealth, only with the champagne and confetti it’s drenched in.
Luhrmann wraps his take on the American Dream up in one big heart-throbbing Love Story — perhaps fueled by an Australian outsider’s admiration that hesitates to criticize. (Underscoring that arms-length remove, Luhrmann shot The Great Gatsby in Australia — though his CGI vision of ‘20s New York City shimmers more like Dorothy’s Oz.) Or maybe Baz’s artistic philosophy is so in love with love — in all its full, fake, archly melodramatic extremes — it leaves room for little else. (I can’t imagine anyone who reads The Great Gatsby seeing Gatsby and Daisy’s love as little more than pathetic, selfish delusion on both sides.)
Likewise, in Luhrmann’s version, Nick’s admiration for (and infatuation with) Gatsby feels genuine — for Gatsby the self-made man of the West; Gatsby the heroic romantic. When movie Nick realizes Gatsby did it “all for her,” we in the theater are meant to swoon along with him at the lovelorn hopelessness of it all, sans any of the arms-length ironic indictment Fitzgerald intended: that Nick has been infected more than inspired by broken Gatsby’s grand self-destruction, tainted more than touched.
This Great Gatsby doesn’t fail for lack of cinematic verve and competence — it can be argued that Luhrmann fully achieves what he set out to do. But if you abandon the very themes that made the book interesting, memorable, and important you can’t be surprised when more astute viewers find your film pointless and — despite the razzmatazz — quite tedious.
About the author
Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.
Some of his other reviews:
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
- Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
- 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
- “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
- A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
- Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
- Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.
- Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.
For More Information
For a great review of the book see “Why Gatsby still haunts us almost 90 years later” by Sarah Churchwell.