‘The Great Gatsby:’ Oh Baz

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, is the book, the novel that for whatever reason has become the forefront of the literary canon for, at this point I assume every single high school English class in the United States. The reason may be, actually, that Fitzgerald’s novel delves into the myth of the American Dream, the loss of one’s innocence and youth, the tumult of the modern age, the destruction that results from obsession, decadence, indulgence, greed, forbidden love, infidelity…and it does it all in a fairly accessible 150 pages or so. Baz Luhrmann, in his film adaptation, takes the brightest crayon right out of the box and straight to those pages, coloring furiously until his hand cramps. What results is a violent and uncalculated animation, a cartoonish diorama, in which the literature of the story, the meaning and the why, only occasionally peek through but is mostly suffocated by layers upon layers of smooth, waxy nothingness.

The trouble begins right away. The film begins by showing Nick Carraway, our narrator, in a sanitarium talking to a doctor, who has propped open his file enough for us to see that Nick is locked away because he is “morbidly alcoholic,” among other “troubled” buzz words. From the looks of Nick (the tiredly naïve Tobey Maguire), he must have walked right from the end of the film into this sanitarium because he looks not a day above whatever age Tobey Maguire perpetually looks. Here, with the help of Doctor Old Guy, Nick settles in to write his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. This framing device is wholly unnecessary, distracting, out of left field, and utterly meaningless. It takes Luhrmann a good twenty minutes to half an hour to abandon the return shots to the sanitarium, but he does, eventually, let it go, that is until the end of the film.

But this misfire is indicative of one of the larger problems of the film; Nick Carraway’s character is toyed with and ultimately flattened. In the novel, he is not the writer he claims to be – he is an insecure little man who, yes, becomes infatuated with the mysterious Jay Gatsby. But by placing him in a sanitarium and making him a novelist, Lurhmann throws Carraway out of the window and creates a new, Nickless Nick, a one note narrator with nothing in his eyes but curiosity turned reverence. This simplification, this disregard for nuance and complexity of character is not only present in Nick, and it makes the beginning of the movie rapidly hemorrhage meaning.

The party scenes are similarly problematic; for all their flash and movement and glitter, they forward nothing. In fact, those lavish spectacles are so over the top they become grotesque and circus-like. Clown cars of drunk flappers screech in the moonlight, painted faces dance wildly, and a bizarre and frightening characterization of Klipspringer bangs the organ. These scenes, though no doubt mesmerizing, seem Baz Lurhmann-y for their own sake and serve against the film. Instead of making Gatsby’s house seem like an ideal of luxury, a cloud of careless, indulgent fun, it appears disgusting and dirty and dangerous, not something Nick would aspire to or Daisy would adore. In the movie Nick likens the party to an “amusement park,” but a more accurate description would be a “sleazy carnival fun house.” The degree of vulgarity here is important – in the novel, the parties are decadent but not gross, like the apartment in New York Tom drags Nick to. But stylistically in the film, there isn’t much difference between the apartment and the party scenes at Gatsby’s. This, again, diminishes any meaning that could have been explored and makes these thrashing, glittery hot messes of scenes, just that.

Lurhmann settles down though. Once he gets it out of his system, he lets the story happen. And it is, in some places word for word, The Great Gatsby that Lurhmann gives us. Aside from the preposterous framing of the film, the story is there. He lets the actors act, and most of them do it very well. Leo DiCaprio is Gatsby. He always was Gatsby. And though Jay Gatsby is so tough to play because what we actually know about him is so convoluted, Leo knows exactly what he’s doing. Carey Mulligan catches Daisy well, and tosses her back at us with that breezy, aloof, barely disguised brokenness. Joel Edgerton is fiery and great as the brutish and sweaty Tom Buchanan, his mustache as tiny as his capacity for compassion.

The CGI throughout the film creates a sense of unreality, a Tim Burton-like dark, cartoon-ish world that seems so fake. There is no evident reason for the look except, perhaps, convenience. Gatsby’s house looks like a Second Life castle (not that I would know…), and the Buchanan house reminds me of a whimsical set from Burton’s, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is truly a feat that the actors are able, for much of the film, to fight through the animated mess around them and actually act, creating real, human moments that capture Fitzgerald’s story.

It’s happened, folks. Baz Luhrmann has adapted The Great Gatsby. It is a film that exists now. It is a fact in our world. It’s out there. It is shot fairly ludicrously but does tell Fitzgerald’s story with loyalty and is acted quite well. However, it is one piece of the past that I think Gatsby would agree doesn’t need repeating.

Grade: C+

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