The Great Gatsby movie review: The unquiet darkness

Luhrmann’s hyperbolic version of ‘Gatsby’

On July 1, 2013

  • Baz Luhrmann joins a group of directors who have failed to reinvent the original genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby with his film version that hit theaters in May. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Film: The Great Gatsby

Release Date: May 10

Studio: Warner Brothers

Grade: C

When you see Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, you realize what a misapprehension it was that such familiar material was befitting for this modernized retelling. Not because the film is a total disaster or that the crew of filmmakers were completely misguided, but that its source - so idiosyncratic in its original form - renders any attempt to present the story through a different medium incapable of not getting somehow lost in translation.

It took only a little over a year for F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel to be adapted for the screen following its publication in April 1925. That film, directed by Herbert Brenon, is all but lost (all that remains now is a trailer held at the National Archives). In 1949, Elliot Nugent brought the story to the screen again (partly to promote the career of Alan Ladd), and in 1974, Jack Clayton delivered the most prominent version to date, starring Robert Redford with a screenplay from Francis Ford Coppola. Two more versions would follow - a television movie and a hip-hop adaptation loosely based off the novel - and it pretty much goes without saying that none of these adaptations have delivered us a satisfactory film version of Gatsby.

When Luhrmann (Australia) became the sixth director to throw his hat in the ring - with Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) in the eponymous role as Jay Gatsby - he embroiled himself in a unique tradition of limp attempts to transmit this particular literary narrative into cinematic form.

Fitzgerald exercises the technique of using a dramatized narrator, Nick Carraway, looking back on something that has happened in the past. It is the way he formulates his summer spent on Long Island in 1922 - as an intricately woven and patterned account of a specific period in time - that sets up the framework for providing the text its substance and complexity; the plot, however, is simple.

The obstacle for filmmakers is to find a way to convey Carraway's narrative thread through film. His role in the plot is primarily a witness. There is never much he is doing physically but constantly observing (aside from having a few conversations) - so, as Bruce Jackson has pointed out, the invariable struggle has been to have his personal voice drive the narrative without his visual role in the film being superfluous.

What Luhrmann moderately recognizes but ultimately fails to fulfill is the central role Carraway's recollection plays in the story. He and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce (Charlie St. Cloud), begin the film with Carraway (Tobey Maguire, The Details) being treated for post-traumatic stress symptoms at an eerie sanitarium back in the Midwest following his time spent in West Egg.

It is there that he composes the text of The Great Gatsby. As the film progresses, Carraway recounts the summer. Occasionally, lines from the book appear on the bottom of the screen as his voice-over narration intermittently guides the rest of the film.

Maguire plays Carraway as a naïve country boy, restrained and mantled by a veil of ignorance, never quite giving us a glimpse of the snob he starts out as - the wide-eyed character he plays would never have the juice to talk down at Yale or World War I. And when he tells us "I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known," we could actually believe it.

Luhrmann places Maguire in the movie as more of a device than a character; he is a sycophant that provides the lens for looking at Gatsby. Neglecting to portray Carraway as a self-absorbed narcissist diminishes the potential for demonstrating his development - which never finds a real role in this version - and discards the fabric of Fitzgerald's text.

All the major encounters Nick has following Gatsby's death (Mr. Gatz, Jordan Baker, Tom Buchannan) are omitted - so it wouldn't matter if it never builds up to him saying he is now "five years too old to lie to himself and call it honor." The film does not concern itself with the novel's true subject.

While a film owes no fidelity to its original source material, Luhrmann and Pearce run in circles by deliberately seeking to supply a new narrative mode to deal with Carraway, only to wind up retaining the convention of keeping Gatsby as the central figure without adequately maintaining the parallel register demonstrating how he influences Carraway. And by doing so, we lose the depth of Gatsby's character, too.

This version gives us a Carraway that changes from his experience - he becomes washed up, depleted, jaded - but without any of the revelations that accompany his transition back to the Midwest. Fitzgerald unmistakably sets the story during the summer (and Luhrmann retains that), yet we get no regenerative image of growth - but a hyperbolic landscape of failed dreams.

Leonardo DiCaprio becomes the film's saving grace as Jay Gatsby. He provides the strongest performance, and his presence alone vitalizes the screen in key moments. At times, he can be a master of nuance, able to impart a suppressed desperation appropriate to the mind of his character.

Carey Mulligan (Shame) doesn't bring so much of a flirtatious sparkle as she does a despondent introversion to the foolhardy Daisy Fay Buchanan; and Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty) turns out to be one of the more acute casting decisions as her husband, Tom - the virile libertine. In the novel, he's introduced wearing a straw hat, and Edgerton sustains the performance skillfully of someone lacking a brain.

Luhrmann keeps a kinetic energy throughout the film and his visual style reflects concern for his portrait of a period of opulence and overindulgence, inhabited by those indifferent to human values; Gatsby's mansion can be filled with people while simultaneously seeming abandoned and desolate.

Carraway's experience at his decadent parties is a shock to his system for all the wrong reasons - not because his interactions with the guests force him to consider the world outside the terms of his own "provincial inexperience," but because he's never before seen anything so grand. "It's like an amusement park," he says.

This depiction becomes so embellished that the layers remove us more from the characters than really giving us a chance to engage with them; we are always kept at an emotional distance as each scene is overloaded with phantasmagorical flare.

To Luhrmann's credit, however, his interpretation does manage to succeed in transferring some of the novel's thematic core - though it's all about Gatsby.

When a number of people question the possibility that Gatsby may have killed a man, we're cued to suspect that maybe he killed the man he used to be in order to become who he thought Daisy would have wanted.

The movie elaborately depicts the garish life Gatsby has attained for himself, and though his quest consists of making money and achieving status, we recognize that those aren't the things he really wants; he wants those things to have as instruments to get what he really wants - to achieve the perfect love with Daisy.

Lurhman and DiCaprio work to depict Gatsby as a man caught up in his own illusion of self-creation. In the process, he becomes "booked to make a mistake" as he attempts to recapture an unrecoverable past. His sense of purpose is squandered by his desire to regain what he once had and to reaffirm the idea he has of himself.

Luhrmann's version is a wistful tragedy of a dreamer whose yearning to dictate the terms of his life is impeded by the licentiousness and materialism of a world in which he's climbed the highest of mountains to be apart of - and his nobility is conflicted by his disillusionment. As he and Daisy are dancing, she asks him, "Was all this made entirely from your own imagination?" The irony of that question (which is not in the novel) is that she has been made from his imagination, too.

She is the final ingredient in the "grand vision he had for his life," as Carraway puts it - represented by the green light at the end of her pier. The green light appears interminably throughout the film and Luhrmann gets caught in this aesthetic misconception that such repetitiousness will emphasize its profundity.

Everything in this film gets overstated.

Just as he did with Romeo and Juliet, Luhrmann takes enduring ideas from an earlier period and expresses them in modern rhythms. The soundtrack includes Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Andre 3000 and Lana Del Ray - which seems to work more toward attracting a younger audience than to establish a sense of time and place.

With emphatic stylization and rushed editing techniques that result in a loss of precision, this film gives us an incomplete Gatsby. There are moments that are genuinely arresting, but as a narrative the film becomes cluttered in trying to weave together too many discordant elements.

The only way it all ties together is through Carraway's formulation as he continuously shapes and reshapes the story as he's telling it - and Luhrmann's appended reshaping is more of a detraction than it is further penetration.

It screams at you to consider some "modern relevance" to Gatsby's dream, and it makes you think more that maybe the dream of making The Great Gatsby a great film was even more elusive.



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