"No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
By now, a decade after having pretended to read The Great Gatsby in high school and seven or so years after actually reading it and falling in love with the story and its characters (for all their faults), you'd think I would have learned that lesson and managed my expectations before seeing Baz Luhrmann's version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic.
Yet, here I am, disappointed with Luhrmann's film, in part because I refused to quell my own anticipation. But, also, because the latest interpretation of Gatsby seemed to distort the values fans of the story hold so dearly.
Luhrmann's version has Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recounting his experiences from that summer to a therapist. Later, he'll plug away at a typewriter to finish the tale as Fitzgerald's words leap off the screen, literally, thanks to the 3D version of the film, which, itself, serves as a commentary on the needless excess in modern society.
We're introduced to East Egg and West Egg as the camera zips back and forth across the expansive body of water separating Gatsby's Shangri La from The Mansion Buchanan. In an early scene, Nick spots Gatsby standing at the end of his dock literally reaching out toward the green light across the water. Though the last two-thirds of the film proved as off-putting as that heavy-handed image (it works better on the page) of Leo with his arm out-stretched, much of the beginning of Luhrmann's tale was on the mark.
The greatest evidence of this was the crowd in the theater for the advanced screening. Buzzed on the first third of the film, with it's up-tempo soundtrack, dizzying effects, and wildly imaginative interpretation of Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Nick's lavish afternoon with Myrtle, everyone was itching to finally make the acquaintance of this mysterious Gatsby fellow. When the camera whips through the party to zero-in on Leonardo DiCaprio's face for one of Luhrmann's trademark close-ups, the audience hurriedly offered a giddy applause. Then, as Luhrmann realized he still had an entire story to tell, the intoxicating nature of the first act wore off the way three drinks at brunch turns into a 5 p.m. hangover if you don't pace yourself properly. When the story finally finished, the crowd offered no applause.
Thematically, it feels as though Luhrmann and company were on-point with their timing for the revival of Fitzgerald's classic. A generation of American lushes sustaining themselves on Four Loko and Jell-O shots could probably stand to learn a thing or two about indulging in excess, both chemically and romantically. The problem was in the execution. For much of the film, it feels like this over-indulgence is celebrated rather than condemned.
The exception was the wonderful scene when Gatsby awkwardly fills Nick's home with flowers ahead of his re-introduction to Daisy. Gatsby's indiosyncracies, blatant flamboyance, and anxiety were simultaneously as charming as they were unsettling. In most instances, though (like the parties at Gatsby's mansion and in the barber shop speakeasy), Luhrmann seems to spend too much time highlighting the appeal of the lavish '20s lifestyle. This version of The Great Gatsby seemed to lack Nick Carraway's hesitation.
Furthermore, it feels like Luhrmann reveres Gatsby's obsessive love for Daisy. Jay Gatsby was a man of extraordinary means—achieved through shameful acts committed behind closed doors—who used that wealth to collect material goods, become a local celebrity, and erect a towering structure, all in a futile attempt to make another man's wife ache to be his everything. He's Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II with nicer shirts and a larger vocabulary. Luhrmann glorifies him.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers all of his angry, finger-pointing angst and flashes that charming smile more frequently in Gatsby than in his other recent films. And Carey Mulligan is serviceable as Daisy Buchanan. The first part of Luhrmann's Gatsby is intoxicating, but the later scene when Daisy can't choose between Jay and Tom is rushed and will give you the spins. (Literally, thanks to the rapid rotation of the camera.)
Fitzgerald's Gatsby isn't a love story. It's a sharp commentary on the insidious vapidity of the American dream, perpetrated by the toppling of one average man's facade of material goods and tall tales. It's about a man who rededicates his life to acquiring wealth in order to impress his Beloved, only to find out that she's not as incredible as he remembers and he's not as impressive as he seems. Luhrmann's Gatsby is a tale of two star-cross'd lovers. It's a story of unrepented love that transcends time and an inspirational man who meets his demise clinging to the last rung of hope. It feels a bit distorted.
DiCaprio's wonderful performance, the mesmerizing scene of Tom and Nick's day with Myrtle, Edgerton's somehow sympathetic portrayal of Tom (even after his emphatic slap of Myrtle), the tact of the scene with the flowers, a flawless score and soundtrack, and the hypnotic visuals of Gatsby's parties aren't enough to rescue the meandering story and misguided motifs.