REVIEW: The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 20th Century Fox)

‘ah, something mildly interesting is in the distance’

[Brief warning: If you haven’t read the book and don’t want it to be spoiled, please don’t read this. Similarly if you haven’t seen the film, I guess. But seriously, read the book first. It’s better.]

There’s a moment early on in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as we’re told how Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) goes to Yale, ends up on Wall Street, and subsequently living in West Egg. ‘I always wanted to be a writer’, he informs us (or rather, his psychiatrist) in voice-over, as he comes across a large pile of books and picks up the first on top. ‘ULYSSES’ is the title of that book, as Nick wistfully and briefly considers it, then regretfully puts it back on top of the pile. This is a significant moment, folks: Artistic Temperament doesn’t matter here, as we quickly cut to a open book about markets and finance, telling us that right now for Nick, Money Matters and he’s going to sell his soul to the devil because hey, Wall Street right? This, my friends, is SYMBOLISM, and A PORTENT.

This perhaps sums up Luhrmann’s approach to adapting the film. Instead of adding in delicate touches and subtle details, he uses too broad a stroke. Judging by his previous work (Strictly Ballroom; Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge!; Australia), Luhrmann tells great love stories between star-crossed or mismatched lovers, love stories that more then often end in great tragedy (‘Come what may, I will love you until my dying day’, sing along everybody!). The affair between Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is the anchor around which the novel fixes itself — and it becomes even more so of an focus in this adaptation, with lingering gazes, fingers grazing the other, and stolen passionate kisses, while Lana Del Rey wanly asks in the background, ‘Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful…?’ This, to some degree, works, leading to some very nice private moments between DiCaprio and Mulligan. But to focus so solely on making their love for one another the centrepiece of this film sacrifices the seedy, unfavourable aspects which underpin their relationship, and also sacrifices other aspects of Fitzgerald’s story which matter too. Sure, Gatsby isn’t who he claims to be, and he’s a fraud, but he does it all for Daisy so that’s alright, isn’t it? We also know that Daisy isn’t entirely perfect either, but the script never fleshes her out, and we never really find out what is wrong barring a few phone calls, the odd glass in her hand, her quivering voice, and THE ABSENCE OF THE KID (where is she, asks Kate Beaton? Here’s her answer). Positioning their relationship in the same framework as Christian and Satine or Romeo and Juliet doesn’t work, and ensures that we simply don’t care about them. In general, it’s a story told in too bold outlines, neglecting the subtleties and intricacies that make the novel so special to read.

The less than romantic aspects of the novel — the thin line of darkness, melancholy, and sadness — are neglected in Luhrmann’s film. Maguire’s Carraway gets carried away with it all, but he’s too bug-eyed, wide eyed, and cherub-like, nor does he possess the necessary complicity and world-wearyness that Nick needs. Nick in the novel is also reminiscent of the Bastard in King John in his idealism, loyalty, and lack of a clear moral compass (think of the commodity speech: ‘And why rail I on this Commodity? | But for because he hath not wooed me yet’), but instead, Maguire simply depicts him as an irritating, dislikeable Gatsbyite who writes the ‘novel’ to Deal With His Problems on the suggestion of his psychiatrist (I’m not sure if this framing device works, though there is a slight nice touch at the end concerning its title). Seeing as Nick is our guide into Gatsby’s world, and the audience’s point of view, this is a shame. Poor Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is resigned to the sidelines as her relationship with Nick barely gets a look-in, and is consigned to simply being Gatsby and Daisy’s Token Gal Pal. Thankfully, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is a man you love to hate, but is unfortunately given a Benedict-Cumberbatch-in-Atonement moustache, because without it Luhrmann assumes that you wouldn’t be able to tell whether you can trust him or not.

Luhrmann’s greatest mistake, however, is cutting one of the most important, and most poignant, scenes from the novel. This is the scene where Nick meets Gatsby’s father, a man of humble origins, at his son’s funeral — a funeral which is notable for the fact that no-one from his infamous parties turns up to it. The film tries to grapple the novel’s concern with emphasising the gulf between Gatsby as a veneer and Gatsby as he really is, but Luhrmann’s decision to overlook a broad demonstration of this is confusing. Cutting his father, a living reminder of Gatsby’s past, perhaps robs the potential of reinforcing this gulf, and also creating a sense of pathos. It’s empty and melancholy, and for me, the saddest scene in the novel — and it is sadly missed from this film. (Non-sequitur: I have no idea if this is intentional or not, but did DiCaprio’s unconvincing appropriation of ‘old sport’ grate on anyone else either? Anyone?)

I don’t think I need to wax lyrical too much about the music; enough has been said about its usage. I do agree with those who think it’s distracting — these songs are good on their own, but they also take us out of Gatsby’s world. There seems to be an attempt to replicate a similar aesthetic to Moulin Rouge! in its patchwork appropriation of past and present, but in all fairness, as I’ve continued to emphasise, Fitzgerald’s novel is a completely different beast to a musical set in 1900s Paris which wears its debts to early cinema, cabaret, and Marc Bolan on its sleeve. I wonder whether Luhrmann is running out of ideas, or fails to realise that different sources of material may not respond well to the same techniques.

By focusing so much on making Gatsby look good rather than making us feel for the characters or illustrating its shallow underbelly, this ensures for a missed opportunity of a film. (That said, I’ve yet to see the Robert Redford version.) Poor DiCaprio and Mulligan try their best, but the end product is the equivalent of being hit in the face several times with a sledgehammer. We’re bored as a result. If you want a contemporary demonstration of the destruction of the American Dream, I suggest you go and listen to The National. Or perhaps go back and read the novel again.


The Great Gatsby, or, Fitzgerald with added bells and whistles.

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio): shit-eating grin
Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio): shit-eating grin

I first read The Great Gatsby around this time last year, on a plane heading towards Newark via Heathrow, on the recommendation of one of my tutors at NUIG, in the spirit of If There’s One Thing You Need To Do Before You Visit Princeton, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed it (well, at the time it *was* my first pleasure read in about ten months), and ever since then, I’ve kept a close eye on the film adaptation, which will be arriving in cinemas in the next number of months.

I want to make one thing clear: I love Baz Luhrmann’s films. I honestly do (skipping Australia, I just never got around to that). My love for Shakespeare was shaped by Romeo + Juliet. Moulin Rouge! is one of my favourite films of all time, mainly because I’m a sucker for musicals and I only realised that two years ago (didn’t stop fifteen year old me play it repeatedly on DVD, however). Strictly Ballroom is sweet and romantic and has loads of wonderful dance moves and an animated sequence in the middle. And that Chanel advert, amidst the whole Why Won’t You Let Nicole Kidman Live Her Life, That Is, A Life With A Poor Hot Writer, was my first introduction to Clair de Lune and Debussy, and is generally quite gorgeous.

But after seeing the first trailer, as well as watching the recent second one, I am very concerned. The novel itself is set in a very distinct time period, just between the Great War and the Great Depression — so, in that case, you can either respect the world of the novel or go in a wholly different direction. Luhrmann seems to have taken the latter option, prompting many questions similar to the beat of ‘why can I hear Kanye West/Lana del Rey/Jack White in the background?’ (Here’s a link to an article describing his decision to go with Jay-Z as musical collaborator. I’m not sure if  ‘We knew we had to unlock for the audience a way of letting them feel what it was like to read Fitzgerald’s book in the 1920s – to be in New York City at that time’ necessarily should mean LET’S PUT HIP HOP IN THE FILM.) I’m not saying that that in general is a very bad idea: it worked very well for Moulin Rouge!, which itself did not make any claims to historical accuracy, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette wore its anachronisms on its sleeve to great effect. But are these 3D effects, Beyoncé Knowles, and dizzying camera angles truly representative of the heart of the novel? Feel free to disagree with me, but what stands out for me is the melancholy and the deep sadness at the novel’s core — that green light, which unfortunately is rendered very garishly in both trailers. At the moment, the film looks too much like a Harry Potter film, and whereas I wouldn’t mind a guilty pleasure flick that you hate to love but love regardless despite what everyone else may say, I don’t think Gatsby deserves that.

this is a film about mildly interested people.
this is a film about mildly interested people.

I’d be grateful for any thoughts. I know my experience of the novel doesn’t quite encompass what everyone else may think, so: what do YOU think? In the meantime, I recommend this to pass the time.