The Great Gatsby is beloved by countless, a tale about the selfish emptiness within decadence and the upper class, a nation on the cusp of change and the increasingly unattainable American dream. It’s a book we’ve all had to read in our respective high school classes. Reigning personal memories include a horrid group project called ‘MTV Gatsby’ set up by an overcompensating student teacher. Yes, folks. We were assigned to create a music video about The Great Gatsby which clearly would provide endless layers of novelistic insight and comprehension. If only my student teacher knew that Aussie extravaganza Baz Luhrmann would release something similar eight years later.
I went into The Great Gatsby with a lot of skepticism. The book has never been a personal favorite, the trailers unimpressed and it was impossible to ignore the lukewarm reception. Much to my surprise, I walked out a moderate fan, so much so that I’m almost tempted to go back and see it again.
Baz Luhrmann’s indulgent theatricality of excess, the out-of-place soundtrack and the marriage of retro pastime and modernity are where he gets it right. These hyper-stylized ADD-like trademarks are on full display, especially in the first half as Nick (Tobey Maguire) becomes indoctrinated into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Is Baz repeating himself here? Absolutely, and I think he will for the rest of his career. But those heightened moments of celebration and the way he detonates the viewer and audience surrogate, in this case Nick, into a world defined by fresh resurrection has the inescapable touch of a fantasy.
This comes across through Luhrmann’s near-obsessive focus with what I like to call the ‘gaze of astonishment’. It’s in most of his films, only occuring on either the smallest of scales (the fish tank scene in Romeo + Juliet) or the biggest (Nick entering his first Gatsby party). It is equivalent to the obligatory moment in fantasy where our protagonist first encounters another world; a land they never dreamed could exist. Luhrmann monopolizes this moment, morphing stylized fantasy into an Old Hollywood kind of realization. The ‘gaze of astonishment’ populates the first half of his films, when pacing is at its most breakneck. It’s often the only time Luhrmann consciously slows down, just for a moment mind you, to pull focus on the reactive wonder of spectacle.
Baz Luhrmann concocts within the realm of ‘pure cinema’, constantly working towards an otherwise untapped wavelength. A major stumbling point for him in regards to ‘Gatsby’ is that he squeezes his adaptation into this state of heightened cinema while simultaneously straining to keep his adaptation ‘literary’. The two don’t merge and this, far more often than Luhrmann’s garish posturing, is what distracts. And boy oh boy does he really hammer home the iconic imagery of the incorrigible green light and the gold specs of T.J Eckleburg.
There are certain showcase scenes that shimmer, fusing the novel seamlessly within Luhrmann’s universe. That first day between Gatsby and Daisy appropriately feels like Cloud Nine. The climactic hotel scene is allowed to breathe and scorches with wishy-washy intention and bracing tautness. There are great scenes sprinkled throughout The Great Gatsby, but that second half strikes an inert chord too often. For Luhrmann, slowing down usually means he’s still functioning at time-and-a-half, but he’s bogged down by his sense of loyalty to the novel and the film stiflingly gets away from him at certain intervals. Thankfully, the parts he gets right are mostly big moments, the ones that needed to stick the landing.
Gatsby and Daisy are erroneously presented as one of Luhrmann’s grand romances even though they don’t fit the bill. We’re meant to buy into Gatsby and Daisy with the impossible hope with which Gatsby urgently clings. This stance undermines the point of their dynamic and fate, asking for contradictory feelings from the audience. Nick’s gradual focus with which he sees most of this morally corrupt and selfish group needed to be the key focal point.
Luhrmann’s perpetual weakness for playing emotions on too grand a scale can work against him, zooming past the individual and occupying an irretrievable space we can only look up at from afar. As a result, Leonardo DiCaprio ends up being responsible for the majority of my emotional response to The Great Gatsby. This, quite frankly, surprised me. When I first heard he was cast, it felt too easy, a solid idea in theory, but not the best fit when you actually put some thought into the choice. Sure there’s initial stagnancy and I struggled with his dialect (an issue I usually have with him). DiCaprio comes through mainly because he’s always been good at bridging an emotional contact with his audience. He plays Gatsby as a boy playing dress-up, someone who pours everything into an unreachable dream. Once he gets past the stiltedness of those introductory scenes, I found myself truly feeling for the man; for how close he was to making that life for himself and the puckish nervousness that comes through his face at the right moments.
Even though Baz Luhrmann has made his whole career playing with love on a mythological scale, ‘Gatsby’ somehow becomes a distracting scene-by-scene recreation of Moulin Rouge! Except Moulin Rouge! is considerably better. While others scrutinized the film as adaptation, I couldn’t help constantly recalling his 2001 musical. For starters, I despise the first fifteen minutes of both for their cartoonish punctuation and put upon silliness. The misguided framing device in ‘Gatsby’ transfers the opening visual cues of post-tragic misery seen in Moulin Rouge!
Here are some more, just for kicks: Nick’s foray into drunkenness and Christian’s foray into absinthe; the first Gatsby party and the first excursion at the Moulin Rouge; the screwball tone and schoolboy shuffling when Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke and when Gatsby awaits his first reunion with Daisy; the ‘honeymoon’ period of Satine and Christian working on ‘Spectacular Spectacular’ and Daisy’s secret summertime paradise visits at Gatsby’s.
The list goes on and on. All of these scenes and much more, line up in overall parallels of structure, scene placement, tone and purpose. It goes past similarity, uncomfortably settling into carbon copy territory. At least in The Great Gatsby, Jay’s hopeful persistence serves its purpose, providing important characterization and an aggravating naïve edge to the doomed lover. Elsewhere in idealistic la-la land, Christian’s incessant non-stop talk of love had me mourning his survival over Satine’s death.
Through the uncharacteristically watered-down and contradictory components in The Great Gatsby, I still find myself doting on the film with an unexpected fondness. Though it can be difficult for me to grasp onto the bigness of Baz Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic romances, his singular audacity is also his greatest strength. Take Romeo + Juliet, a film that largely grates, but unlike ‘Gatsby’, goes for broke every step of the way. There’s an admiration and respect I have for its incomparably original streak. It broke ground you didn’t know was even there as Luhrmann reached out to cinema as a state of being, and in the mainstream sector no less! The Great Gatsby is often at odds with itself, but Luhrmann’s single-minded cinematic state of being comes across enough to tip the scales.