Baz Luhrmann and I have not been getting along. I can stand here and listen to someone talk about how gifted he is as a filmmaker and how meticulous he is in crafting his work. I would probably agree with every word. But I find his most popular films (Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) to be unpleasant sensory overloads. They certain affect me – in that they make me seek out the nearest bottle of Advil to combat the sensory overload.
Besides, Luhrmann is also rather short on ideas. You mean popular culture tends to be cyclical, with the same ideas being repackaged for new audiences? Don’t stop the presses. Or at least, most people would not want to make a big deal. But using the printing press metaphor, Luhrmann has taken this idea, smashed the printing press to pieces, went forward with his idea, printed it, and is now sitting there demanding a Pulitzer Prize for his cleverness.
The soundtracks to his films are consistently among the best, including the one to The Great Gatsby. Go take a listen – Emili Sande’s cover of “Crazy in Love” is amazing. However, when the best thing about your films is the element that does not require images, you are in trouble.
That was the mindset I went into The Great Gatsby possessing. The great Jazz Age tragedy, in which a simple man turned himself into a garish monster in order to win the love of an utterly vapid (but rich) simpleton requires a certain amount of subtlety and care to translate.
Well, Luhrmann tried his best. This is the finest film he’s made – but that really isn’t saying much. I wish I could say that his translation of Gatsby is the one that finally managed to do justice to Fitzgerald’s legendary work. It’s wonderful to look at, the casting is immaculate, the performances fantastic. But it utterly failed to translate the point of the novel to the screen. In fact, it seemed downright ignorant of the fact that Gatsby is a fool, not a hero. It takes a complex satire and turns it into the typical “star crossed lovers” story that Luhrmann loves so much.
I did like the fact that Luhrmann finally realized that films are supposed to look like films and not extended music videos. The Great Gatsby is an beautiful film, looking at the Jazz Age through the eyes of an Art Deco poster. Everything is bright and glistening, with the people constantly drinking and dancing surrounded by confetti and fireworks. Everything also looks false and silly, as though it could crumble at any moment – which, of course, it did. There is a brilliance in the design that captures what was wrong with the Jazz Age. And at least the design ensures the film is never boring. The party scenes are delightfully hedonistic – which was the whole point of them. Of course we know that the attendees would eventually wake up the, hungover and in the Great Depression. It helps exemplify the tragedy of the novel – one of the few elements of the film that does so (more on that in a moment).
The performances are spot on. Tobey Maguire is perfect as the wimpy Nick Carraway, who is barely noticeable to the people he encounters. Practically every character overlooks him. Even Jordan Baker towers over Nick. Even Maguire realizes the tragedy that Nick was Gatsby’s only friend. And DiCaprio is the perfect Gatsby. He manages to convey that enigmatic spirit that is hiring a nervous wreck. At times, DiCaprio plays Gatsby as though he is intimidated by his wealth. Gatsby is a man who is sequestered in a fantasy realm, and DiCaprio reflects this by imitating every other rich man around him. When the mask drops, the man who remains is damaged beyond repair. It is exactly the performance necessary to reflect one of literature’s most famous characters.
But it is another character that destroys the work. The film’s characterization of Daisy is utterly wrong. Fitzgerald characterized Daisy as an empty vessel, a woman who barely had a functioning brain cell. When Nick first meets her in the novel, he describes how the people in Chicago are mourning her absence by painting one of the tires on their cars black. And she seems to believe it. Gatsby’s desire for her was meant to make us laugh that he would sell his soul for someone who was not worth the effort. The dream girl Gatsby sought was based on a figment of his imagination. Nick’s statement that one “cannot repeat the past” was a warning. Gatsby’s dismissal (“Of course you can”) was to show how far gone he was in his fantasy realm.
None of that is in the film. Luhrmann sees Daisy as an intelligent woman who says all of Daisy’s classic lines with knowing sarcasm. She is trapped in a marriage to a racist brute (which, to be fair, is what Tom was in the novel, but Daisy did not seem to mind that much) who equally longs for Gatsby and views him as the love of her life. Even her daughter (the symbol of how doomed Gatsby’s quest to turn back the clock is) is barely mentioned at all – all to give us a more sympathetic view of the two. Dasiy is presented as the ultimate dream woman who deserves Gatsby, a man that truly loves her.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. This is taking one of the great American novels and turning it into something slightly above a soap opera. Maybe that’s why I am responding so negatively to it – The Great Gatsby has, in the ninety years since its publication, become something more than a novel. It has become the history of the Jazz Age and an official chronicle of all foolish dreamers. It’s become a classic plot in its own right. Why make it a cliched romance?
This isn’t Carey Mulligan’s fault. Sure, she is not portraying Daisy at all, but it is clear that she was not told to. But it is still inappropriate. The character is as vapid and empty as any stereotypical dumb blonde. Mulligan, I suppose, was too good for that.
I guess that people who are not familiar with Fitzgerald’s novel will probably enjoy this more. But then, who at this point has not read it it? It’s been required reading at any decent high school for decades. Ignoring the film’s biggest tragic element is a glaring error that almost everyone will notice it. The Great Gatsby has not survived the ages for being a doomed love story. The film is wonderful to look at and features great performances, but the film doesn’t even hit the same target as Fitzgerald’s book. What’s the point of adapting The Great Gatsby if you’re going to completely ignore the point?