The best way to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s big and noisy new version of The Great Gatsby – and despite what you may have heard, it is an eminently enjoyable movie – is to put aside whatever literary agenda you are tempted to bring with you.
I grant that this is not so easily done. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slender, charming third novel has accumulated a heavier burden of cultural significance than it can easily bear. Short and accessible enough to be consumed in a sitting (as in “Gatz,” Elevator Repair Service’s full-text staged reading), the book has become, in the 88 years since its publication, a schoolroom staple and a pop-cultural totem. It shapes our increasingly fuzzy image of the Jazz Age and fuels endless term papers on the American dream and related topics.
Through this fog of glib allusion and secondhand thinking, the wistful glimmer of Fitzgerald’s prose shines like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. If The Great Gatsby can’t quite sustain the Big Ideas that are routinely attached to it – a fact that periodically inspires showboating critical contrarians to proclaim that it’s not such a big deal after all – it nonetheless remains a lively, imaginative presence. The book may not be as Great as its reputation, but it is also, partly for that reason, better than you might expect. It is flawed and flimsy in some ways, but it still manages to be touching, surprising and, in its bittersweet fashion, a lot of fun.
All of which is to say that, whatever you think of Luhrmann’s energetic, brightly coloured rendering of the sad story of Jay Gatsby, the Trimalchio of West Egg, Long Island, it should at least be immune to accusations of sacrilege. Gatsby is not gospel; it is grist for endless reinterpretation.
Luhrmann’s reverence for the source material is evident. He sticks close to the details of the story and lifts dialogue and description directly from the novel’s pages. But he has also felt free to make that material his own, bending it according to his artistic sensibility and what he takes to be the mood of the times. The result is less a conventional movie adaptation than a splashy, trashy opera, a wayward, lavishly theatrical celebration of the emotional and material extravagance that Fitzgerald surveyed with fascinated ambivalence.
This is the first time Luhrmann has taken up an American source in an American setting (though his cast is mostly British and Australian), and his vision of 1920s Manhattan is exactly as naturalistic as his portrait of Belle Epoque Paris in Moulin Rouge, which is to say not very much. Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) is still a bully and a bigot, spouting the popular racist pseudoscience of his day. The gangster Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) is a bit less of a cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature than he was in 1925. The poverty of George and Myrtle Wilson (Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher) remains a grim contrast to the endless ease of Gatsby and the Buchanans. But all of these people occupy a cartoon America that no living person has ever visited.
Some of the finely shaded social distinctions that preoccupied Fitzgerald – between Easterners and Westerners, new money and old – are noted, but they don’t have a whole lot of resonance. We are in a world of artifice and illusion, confected from old-fashioned production-design virtuosity and newfangled digital hocus-pocus.
In the 3-D version, the viewer swoops and swerves through one of Gatsby’s parties in a movement that combines Vincente Minnelli-style suavity with the controlled vertigo of a theme park ride. As it happens, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) compares the sybaritic scene at Gatsby’s mansion to “an amusement park.” And Luhrmann’s peculiar genius – also the thing that drives cultural purists of various stripes crazy – lies in his eager, calculating mix of refinement and vulgarity.
Neither Fitzgerald nor Nick, his diffident mouthpiece, was immune to the seductions of hedonism and luxury, and the book does not entirely succeed as a critique of American materialism at what seemed to be its high-water mark. Luhrmann, for his part, does not resist at all. He fuses the iconography of dressed-up '20s decadence with the swagger of hip-hop high-end consumerism. Jay Gatsby has got money. He’s got cars. He’ll spend a hundred grand over by the bar.
But unlike, say, Jay-Z (an executive producer of the film), Jay Gatsby is a rich man whose modest background and criminal past are something to be hidden, sources of mystery, shame and potential ruin. To Tom Buchanan, Gatsby is “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” while to Nick he is a shimmering enigma, first glimpsed through the window of his colossal home.
To those of us watching in our modest multiplex seats, he is a movie star. In previous incarnations he was Robert Redford, Alan Ladd and Warner Baxter, and now Leonardo DiCaprio has slipped into the ice cream suit and the curious diction. “Old sport” may be the two hardest words for an American actor to say, but for Gatsby himself they were an affectation, so it is possible to overlook DiCaprio’s overdone accent. (I do wish he would try a performance without one, though.) More important, it is impossible to look away from him. His charisma has increased as his youthful prettiness has worn and thickened away, and he is beautiful, sad, confident and desperate in exactly the way Gatsby should be.
Everything in the movie – and nearly everything in the novel – passes through a double lens of romanticism. Gatsby is partly a creature of Nick’s imagination, and conjures up his own idealized vision of Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the girl he left behind and acquired his ill-gotten fortune to win back.
Is the tale of Daisy and Gatsby a credible love story? Fitzgerald himself was not sure, but Luhrmann, DiCaprio and Mulligan make it an effective one. At a crucial, climactic moment – a scene in a suite at the Plaza Hotel – the director mutes his irrepressible, circus ringmaster showmanship and plunges into undiluted melodrama. The music stops, and the camera cuts among the assembled faces as the emotional core of the film is laid bare.
That scene stands out in a movie that is otherwise gaudily and grossly inauthentic. Jay Gatsby is too, of course. He is self-invented and also self-deluded, spinning out fantasies for himself and others as easily as he gives parties. As a character in Nick’s ruminations, in Fitzgerald’s sentences and in our national mythology, he is a complete mess. This movie is worthy of him.
THE GREAT GATSBY
Directed by Baz Luhrmann; written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald; director of photography, Simon Duggan; edited by Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine and Jonathan Redmond; music by Craig Armstrong; production design and costumes by Catherine Martin; produced by Luhrmann, Martin, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher and Catherine Knapman; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 23 minutes.
WITH: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker) and Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim).
The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Cigarettes, adultery, illegal hooch and other Jazz Age vices.
© 2013 New York Times News Service