The new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is filmed by director Baz Luhrmann as if everyone and everything in it had a fever, which in many ways is probably a very acute approach to this story that takes place during a particular frenzied time in U.S. history. Everything is hyped, over the top, as if it’s on Benzedrine. As a result, this is probably Luhrmann’s best film to date. This is not to say it’s a good film (it doesn’t quite go there), but it’s certainly far superior to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!
People always talk of the difficulty of adapting Fitzgerald’s classic novel (which wasn’t so classic when it came out; it flopped miserably when it was first published). For me, the problem has always revolved around the character of Gatsby himself, who is, in many ways, the least interesting person in the book. He’s not the central character; Nick Carroway, the somewhat callow observer, has that honor and it’s Nick who the story is about. And most of what makes Gatsby interesting takes place in the past long before the story starts; and when this past is related, it’s often open to credulity. So how do you dramatize a story about someone who is a secondary character and whose past is primarily myth?
Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, in many ways take the same tact that the writers and director did in the 1949 version starring Alan Ladd. They downplay all the other characters and fight fiercely to bring Gatsby center stage. The Ladd version did it by turning the story of Gatsby into a film noir, fully dramatizing in flashback his rise to gangster glory. Luhrmann and Pearce do it by emphasizing the love story between Gatsby and Daisy, giving it a tragic, star crossed lovers feel.
This approach has its downside. It often reduces the other characters to their bare necessities. Jordan Baker now has so little to do, one wonders why she is even in the picture. And the Wilsons, George and Myrtle, are now no more than mere melodramatic contrivances (this actually works the best because these two characters now feel more like toys that the well to do play with rather than real characters in their own right).
But from a dramatic standpoint, Luhrmann’s approach was probably a sound stratagem because the romance is the part of the movie that works the best. There is something touching, often beautiful, about these two doomed lovers. Luhrmann is able to restrain himself a bit here and let the actors and the screenplay pull their weight such that when Gatsby is a terrified little boy waiting for Daisy to arrive for tea or when he is throwing his shirts down to Daisy, the moments become rather transcendental.
Of course, Luhrmann and Pearce have to cheat a bit to make it work. They up the tragedy by purifying the love story. In the novel, one of the reasons Gatsby is attracted to Daisy is due to her background (the movie leaves out Gatsby’s line that Daisy’s voice sounds like “money”) and the writers downplay that one of the reasons Daisy first rejects Gatsby is because he has no wealth and then accepts him more to get back at her husband for cheating on her than out of true love. And they also play a bit fast and lose on the death of Myrtle; in the book, there’s some indication it wasn’t totally an accident, that Daisy swerved the car purposely, while in the movie the suggestion is that it was completely unintentional and unavoidable. No, Luhrmann instead decides to swoon in delirium over the couples feelings for each other. And some good swooning it is.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Gatsby and it is his performance that holds the movie together. When he appears, DiCaprio shows both Gatsby’s strength and vulnerability at the same time just by standing there. His line readings are spot on; even the “old sport”, a phrase almost impossible to say with a straight face (maybe it works because DiCaprio pronounces the words as if they are as much of a sham as the house he lives in and the parties he throws). This Gatsby is both so fierce and adorable in what he wants, he makes us want it to.
And he gets able support from Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Joel Edgerton as her racist, to the manor born husband Tom. They have great chemistry with DiCaprio and match him line reading for line reading. It all results in a scene that feels like it’s torn from a boulevard drama: all the characters are trapped in a hotel room together when everything comes out. Everyone plays it like they were doing O’Neill and they pretty much get away with it. Sad to say, though, Tobey Maguire, as Carraway, is the weak point here. He is given the thankless task of voice over narrating. But the narration is clunky and Maguire is listless and flat, a deadly combination.
But in the end, though there is actually much to like here, and even much to admire, it never quite comes together in a satisfying whole. It works best when Luhrmann matches his editing and directing style to the brilliantly chosen, but often anachronistic music. However, the film is more of an interpretation of The Great Gatsby rather than a story that works in its own right. This even leads to Luhrmann and Pearce working very hard to parallel the story to today: Nick works in bonds at a time just before the country will be hit by recession; Tom is a representative of the 1% while the Wilsons are the 99; and the authors really emphasize the increasing presence of blacks in society.
But Luhrmann is also such a visual stylist and such an over director, that all subtlety is lost. Everything is over telegraphed to such a degree that the weak parts of the book (the obvious symbolism of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the melodramatic contrivances of who is driving what car when Myrtle is killed) only feel weaker, while the strengths of the book are done so big they often get in the way of allowing one to become emotionally involved in the story as one would like. Rather than feel the emotions, you are much more interested in critiquing Luhrmann’s approach to the material (though I have to say, I loved the Rhapsody in Blue intro of Gatsby at his party).
Tell me what you think.