Why does Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby feel like two distinct movies, clashing with each other more often than complementing each other? Why is it that lengthy stretches of dialogue, despite being lifted directly from the unimpeachable prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, interpreted through mostly wonderful performances from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, feel so dramatically inert? Why does Luhrmann’s specialized brand of bombast convey a kind of emptiness I do not believe was intended? Why does the movie feel thirty minutes too long?
Allow me to venture my theory: The Great Gatsby, budgeted at a bloated $125 million, is but another victim of Hollywood’s maddening obsession to treat each license it adapts with kid’s gloves. Luhrmann and company aims for “faithfulness” to the book, admittedly a favorite perennial enough to daunt the most confident of filmmakers. However, he gives us a project that ultimately wavers in fealty between “faithfulness” to its source material, and dedication to its director’s vision. As if Luhrmann really had to choose. To be fair, there is little about Luhrmann’s Gatsby that is roundly objectionable. In truth, it gave me enough pleasure to make the experience moderately worthwhile. But the movie’s unfortunate crisis of identity diminishes what could have been the greatest movie Gatsby, and turns it into something, disappointingly, as hollow as those legendary parties the old sport threw at his West Egg mansion.
Luhrman’s script for The Great Gatsby, which was co-written by his frequent collaborator Craig Pearce, follows Fitzgerald’s original text fairly closely. For those of you who were were not forced in high school to read that quintessential statement on American ambition and excess (and to the three of you to whom this applies, all you need to remedy so wretched a personal deprivation is a library card and a spare afternoon), the story offers a fleeting glimpse of 1920’s Long Island society life through the troubled debauchery of Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio) and the lavish parties he throws on his Long Island estate. A 1920’s entrepreneur whose origins and recently obtained wealth are a mystery to all, Gatsby hopes to use his new success and prominence to win back Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan), an equally wealthy socialite with whom he had a passionate love affair before the Great War. Gatsby seduces Daisy, fully aware she is married to a loutish, old-money philanderer named Tom Buchanan, played by Joel Edgerton.
Gatsby’s torrid affair is seen through the eyes of his next-door neighbor Nick Carraway, who also happens to be Daisy’s cousin. In perhaps the movie’s most notable departure from its literary counterpart, Nick – played in the movie by Tobey Maguire – recounts his experiences on West Egg while being treated at a psychiatric institution for clinical depression and alcoholism. This departure from the novel is problematic not so much because it adds a completely new layer to the original story, but because it is a flagrantly clumsy (and perhaps even exploitative) device to frame this story. Even if it did not work on its own terms, I at least appreciated how it gave Nick Carraway’s uncinematic passivity a sense of perspective. Nick (still) functions as a purely reactive character, but in the context of this film, he at least gets a chance to react with real emotions, thus giving Maguire more to chew on than we’ve seen in other Gatsby adaptations.
Having been written in the years leading up to the Great Depression, and being re-adapted now in the years following a new period of economic turbulence, The Great Gatsby remains such a rich thematic text because of the reverberating truths it has to share about the glories and inevitable follies of the American (now global) capitalistic experience and one’s inextricable obsession with the past. Fitzgerald writes of a time of unfettered exuberance, one whose highs are as glorious as its lows are melodramatic. This is a narrative for which the Australian director of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet seems entirely predestined. Many chide Luhrmann for what they see as his frenetic, oppressively flamboyant visual sensibility, and also for the emotional and thematic simplicity inherent to each of his movies’ core relationships. But here’s the great thing about Luhrmann: as divisive as his mixed bag of tricks tend to be, he remains one of the more honest aesthetes currently in the moviemaking biz. He brings to each of his projects a kind of earnest, sensual pleasure that titillates viewers even as it drives them positively bananas.
This is why certain moments in this protractedly uneven Gatsby adaptation work rather well. Those iconic parties in Gatsby’s West Egg mansion accomplish exactly what I had hoped a Baz Luhrmann treatment of Fitzgerald’s prose would look like. Luhrmann gloriously uses Fitzgerald’s text as a blueprint, but injects a sensibility entirely his own. Those parties – bustling, flamboyant, colorful, and booming with a stunningly anachronistic Jay-Z score that fits precisely because it does not fit – convey exactly the kind of energy this movie needed to convey in its outset. When Nick happens upon that very first party at the home of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, my grin could not have stretched more widely across my face.
And concerning the love scenes between Daisy and Gatsby, Luhrmann necessarily moderates his tone. Allowing DiCaprio and Mulligan to indulge a kind of romantic chemistry that feels superficially reserved, considering the outlandish Catherine Martin set design surrounding them, the actors work with each other to establish an intensely emotional, unspoken history of ached, unrequited love. The looks Daisy and Gatsby give each other communicate everything. For a fleeting moment then, Luhrmann and Martin’s vision of West Egg dissipates, and all that matters – as was the case in R + J and Moulin Rouge – are the two star-crossed lovers, sharing the screen, destined for tragedy. Credit goes to Mulligan and DiCaprio in these moments for giving the film’s best performances. Mulligan conveys a tragic ambivalence that in the wrong actress could have reduced Daisy into a mindless ingenue, but she finds more to the character. And DiCaprio shifts from swaggering braggadocio to profound insecurity with a tonal fluidity that, if also in the wrong hands, could have felt jarring. Instead, his performance feels complex and fully realized. He is the perfect Jay Gatsby.
These moments of greatness derive themselves not merely from Fitzgerald’s words, but from a fearlessness with which Luhrmann takes those words to fit his own vision and idiosyncrasies. Alas, they also accentuate just why the 2013 Gatsby disappoints. That “fearlessness” I refer to is fleeting here, and more often than not it seems to buckle under the weight of faithfully adapting one of the seminal works of 20th century American literature. Much of the dialogue and plot beats in Gatsby are lifted directly from the page and transplanted on the screenplay, and Luhrmann seems to hope that his signature visual and aural flair will simply merge into with the material. And while Luhrmann’s intentions are noble, there is a misguidedness to this approach; it presumes that it is the movie that must adhere to the source material, and not the other way around. This results in a film of sensibilities that do not blend together – that do not interact with each other – but instead seem to stand alongside each other, coldly, warring over the kind of movie they want to be a part of.
Take the Gatsby film’s most flagrant bungle, its depiction of that most iconic of literary metaphors, the Green Light at the end of Daisy’s pier. In the novel, it is almost necessary to explain the significance of that metaphor, to explain Nick Carraway’s reaction as he sees Gatsby reaching out to that Green Light, believing in its “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” For a medium as inherently visual as film is, Luhrmann seems to betray his own craft when he shows Gatsby reaching for that pulsating, gorgeously haunting Light, and he inundates the viewer with Nick’s intrusive narration – a word-by-word transcription of Fitzgerald’s prose – repeating to us precisely what we see on screen. It is redundant, it undercuts the inherent power that cinema can evoke, and it appeases the kind of worst kind of Gatsby fan: the kind who balks at even the slightest omission or deviation, falsely believing it somehow dilutes the power Fitzgerald brought to the page almost a century prior.
Cinematically, Luhrmann does not believe in that Green Light. He does not trust it. More often than not, he seems to fear manipulating Fitzgerald’s words to cater exclusively to his own artistic inclinations. He wishes to be “faithful” to the literary vision that is The Great Gatsby. But, perhaps fearing the wrath of the literary purist, he conflates “faithfulness” with “imitation,” and mitigates his own vision. When those final words were narrated, and literally appeared on the screen: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” I grimaced. It is perhaps the greatest final sentence an English-language novel has ever produced, and it reads here not as proper closure, but again as perfunctory reader appeasement. It is a decision that is religious in its interpretation to the text, but not truly reverent. The same can be said be said for the movie overall.
When The Great Gatsby is adapted again, as surely it will, let’s hope its director will know that true reverence to a source text is found not in a rigid adaptation of the text itself, but in a belief in their own unique interpretation of that text. The book exudes its own brand of timelessness. Why shouldn’t the movie hoping to honor that quality do the same?
Bottom Line: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby adaptation has its flashes of vivacious beauty, but fails to properly distinguish itself from its legendary source material.