A Not-So-American Tale
by Chris Wisniewski
The Great Gatsby
Dir. Baz Luhrmann, U.S., Warner Bros.
Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby ends, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, with narrator Nick Carraway reflecting on Jay Gatsby’s fascination with a green light across the bay that separates his house on the West Egg of Long Island from the fashionable East Egg. The light calls like a beacon from the property of his one-time lover Daisy, Nick’s second cousin once removed. For Gatsby, that flash of green represents Daisy and, through her, in Fitzgerald’s words (spoken in the film by Tobey Maguire’s Nick in a voiceover), a “dream” of an “orgiastic future.”
In the book’s narration, Fitzgerald also expresses a parallel that Luhrmann’s film does not, between Gatsby’s dream and “the last and greatest of all human dreams”—that of the Dutch sailors who “must have held [their] breath in the presence of this continent.” Luhrmann’s movie stops short of this comparison. It excises all talk of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” that was “something commensurate with [man’s] capacity for wonder,” and the movie’s final voiceover makes no mention of the “dark fields of the republic [that] rolled on under the night.” Herein lies a crucial difference between Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Luhrmann’s. Fitzgerald’s slim, devastating masterwork (we’ll ignore some recent, misguided attempts to take the novel down a peg or two occasioned by the movie’s release) is, finally, a novel of America masquerading as a half-baked tragic love story, where the movie is an overwrought, though not unforgivable, tragic love story with no interest in or insight into America. This crucial distinction suggests Luhrmann’s failure here—not that he’s missed the point of Fitzgerald’s novel (though he has) or that his movie is a lousy adaptation of the book (though it is), but that Gatsby becomes nothing more than an occasion for the director to revisit familiar Luhrmann territory without expanding his ambitions thematically or aesthetically.
Luhrmann is one of Hollywood’s few remaining celebrity auteurs, a filmmaker with such a brazen and bombastic sense of his own vision that he’s capable, for better and usually for worse, of co-opting and overwhelming even the most formidable source material. In form, structure, and narrative alike, Gatsby flaunts its director’s authorial mark early and often. A digitally rendered old timey, silent-era style Warner Bros. logo opens the film before Luhrmann’s swooping, twirling, effects-enabled camera shuttles to the Perkins Sanatorium—more on that in a bit—and then to 1920s era New York City, complete with animated stock tickers climbing up and up and up over images of urban hustle and bustle, before propelling out to Long Island and, in time, to anachronistically hip-hop–infused parties that play as visual cousins to the postmodern musical numbers of Moulin Rouge. Like that film, Luhrmann’s Gatsby has bookend sequences, which are set at Perkins in an indeterminate period some years after the principal action of Gatsby, with Nick, similar to Ewan McGregor’s Moulin Rouge protagonist, driven to alcoholism by the tragedy he proceeds to narrate while writing it into a book. The conceit both replicates the narrative structure of Luhrmann’s earlier film and provides justification for the voiceover he and coscreenwriter Craig Pearce (who also cowrote Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge) lift largely, though not exclusively, from their source.
Though its framing device would seem to tether the movie to Nick’s point-of-view, Luhrmann’s film assumes a less rigorously subjective perspective than the novel, with flashbacks and cutaways to scenes to which Nick himself could never be privy. Fitzgerald’s Nick, a cipher to be certain, stands “within and without” the book’s narrative; he participates in the action that unfolds but maintains a somewhat hypocritical moral and emotional distance from it that allows Fitzgerald to refract his own ambivalence through Nick’s first-person narration. Luhrmann’s Nick, too, professes to be both “within and without”—in an early party scene even staring down from a window at a double of himself as an interested passerby—but he also displays a palpable and largely uncomplicated emotional connection to Gatsby, and the sanatorium scenes have the effect of leaving Nick as collateral damage of Gatsby and Daisy’s doomed love affair. What little plot Fitzgerald devotes to Nick himself, including a brief flirtation with a professional golfer named Jordan Baker (played here by an oddly warm and far too appealing Elizabeth Debicki), is entirely eliminated in the film, reducing Nick, even more so than in the book, to a spectator while elevating the tragedy he observes to operatic heights it cannot bear.
Though it runs for a lugubrious 143 minutes, the movie actually streamlines much of the book’s plot. Here, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby and Carey Mulligan’s Daisy fully take center stage, the former even receiving a cartoonishly grand star entrance, complete with “Rhapsody in Blue” and background fireworks. Luhrmann’s stock-in-trade is star-crossed lovers, and he brings that preoccupation to this material with a singular focus. Yes, Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan (an adequately masculine and smug Joel Edgerton) still has an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the ill-fated wife of a car mechanic, and Gatsby still engages in some shady dealings with his Jewish business associate Meyer Wolfsheim (played by Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan). But the scenes featuring these secondary characters have a breathless and perfunctory—and rather mindless—quality to them. Whatever they might add in the novel to Fitzgerald’s larger portrait of class, privilege, and even race and ethnicity in 1920s New York is elided. Numerous reviewers have expressed some relief at Luhrmann’s sidestepping of the book’s dubiously anti-Semitic depiction of Wolfsheim, but his Jewishness is also central to understanding the wider sociological context that frames Gatsby as a character. A friend remarked, so astutely that I’m stealing the observation, that Luhrmann could have learned from Terence Davies’s envisioning of the Rosedale character in The House of Mirth—specifically Jewish but less problematically so than in Wharton’s novel. Myrtle, Wolfsheim, Tom, Jordan, and Nick don’t so much populate a simulacrum of 1920s New York as play bit parts in a banal romance in which period features as pastiche.
Not unlike Luhrmann’s previous efforts, this Gatsby oscillates wildly between glib self-awareness and earnest romanticism. DiCaprio’s hysterically over-the-top entrance is just the most glaring example of Luhrmann’s more-is-more, wink-and-nudge panache. Nick and Tom’s first booze-filled field trip into the City, for example, is punctuated by cutaways to a black trumpet player on a balcony and features an alcohol-soaked fever-dream of apartment buildings filled with private parties, visible through rows of street-facing windows. Such flourishes have little to say about Nick’s state of mind, save the fact that he’s drunk, or about the time period or setting. In typical Luhrmann fashion, they come off instead as vaguely desperate attempts to use contemporary effects to reinterpret the past through a gaudy 21st-century sense of style and to thereby somehow make the past relevant by the standards of contemporary “cool,” as though Fitzgerald’s ideas aren’t enough to make this story worth telling. This is nothing new, and the 3D, Luhrmann’s one visual advance on his previous work, does little to embellish or improve upon his aesthetic. Where Martin Scorsese or Ang Lee used the technology to rethink their visual approach, for Luhrmann, it comes off as just another attempt to shove wife Catherine Martin’s sumptuous costume and production design in our faces.
When Luhrmann is dealing with the book’s most iconic images, he returns to them repeatedly and emphatically, most especially with the apparently ubiquitous green light and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg that appear to haunt the wasteland where Myrtle and her husband live. With these overloaded symbols, Luhrmann’s earnestness comes through. He and Pearce even add a pointed introduction to the Eckleberg billboard from Nick in which he explicitly compares the spectacled eyes to “the eyes of God.” Luhrmann’s constant use of the light and the billboard betray his essential confusion vis-a-vis the source material: the green light is a symbol to Gatsby, as Eckleberg’s eyes are a symbol to Wilson—not to Nick, nor to Fitzgerald. By so portentously leaning on these visual tropes, Luhrmann takes his characters’ perceptions and reactions to their reality too much at face value. This miscalculation is symptomatic of a larger tonal problem: the film never settles into the right register, a place of appropriate remove pitched somewhere between its schizophrenic extremes of parodic irony and adolescent sincerity.
This tone problem proves most catastrophic when it comes to Daisy and Gatsby who are, by design, too vain, selfish, and empty to inspire genuine sympathy. Willfully naive and manipulatively foolish, Daisy has always been a rather impossible character for an actress to play. Mia Farrow, a far more gifted performer than Mulligan, embarrassed herself in the role in the 1974 film, and Mulligan fares no better in her flat attempts to convey Daisy’s wounded desireability and bottomless frivolity. DiCaprio, at least, has the luxury of playing a character more suited to his gifts. Though he can’t sell Gatsby’s charisma in the elaborate party scenes, DiCaprio, who has always been the kind of actor who wins when he’s trying just a little too hard, manages in more intimate set pieces to capture the uneasy effort Gatsby exerts in trying to convince others—and himself—of the authenticity of his persona. There’s something charmingly awkward and endearing about him in the scene in which he reunites with Daisy over tea at Nick’s home—an aggressive assertion of self that fails to cover his essential, existential absence.
But it’s impossible to care about the love of two non-people. Fitzgerald never really asked us to. The tragedy of the book doesn’t lie in their sad affair but rather in the want, the need, the fear, and the delusional desire that would lead people like Gatsby and Daisy to take on the roles they do—to undertake their dance of death. By reinterpreting this drama as yet another reenactment of the same love story he’s told over and over again, Luhrmann ends up focusing on the least significant aspects of the book at the expense of almost everything that makes it so extraordinary. The one exception is the climactic scene, near the end of the film, where Tom and Gatsby confront one another in front of Daisy, Nick, and Jordan in a suite at the Plaza hotel. Dialogue-heavy and visually straightforward, the scene follows the book beat for beat and crackles with an intellectual energy otherwise missing in this turgid and rather vapid movie. For decades, people have argued about whether The Great Gatsby is, in fact, an unadaptable novel. The Plaza scene provides some scant evidence that there might one day be a fine film titled The Great Gatsby. For now, though, we’re just left with another entry in the Luhrmann oeuvre—something that’s neither great, nor, surfaces aside, particularly Gatsby.