The Great Gatsby
based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I have an odd relationship with Baz Luhrmann’s filmography. While I do enjoy Moulin Rouge and scream in joy every time “Lady Marmalade” comes on the radio (but they always cut Eve’s rap! Why would you ever cut Eve’s rap? It’s the best part of the song!), I can’t really think of it as a film. I can only conceptualize it as a feature-length block of music videos tethered together by a story. And yet, I was interested in his vision of The Great Gatsby ever since the first trailer came out. It was either going to be an inspired adaptation or a beautiful, hot mess, and I love both of those things equally. And then it got pushed back, which meant I only remembered it existed when the mixed reviews of the past few weeks came out. I wasn’t moved to see it opening weekend, but eventually, I could no longer resist its siren song.
The Great Gatsby, set in the summer of 1922, opens with Nick Carraway, having moved to New York for work, renting a home next to the enormous mansion of the titular Jay Gatsby. The property hosts extravagant, scandalous parties, but Gatsby himself remains aloof. When he contacts Nick with a request for a meeting between himself and Nick’s cousin, the beautiful and very married Daisy Buchanan, Nick agrees. But this simple act drags Nick into a web of deceit and lies much deeper than he could have ever imagined, all because Jay Gatsby believes so much in the American Dream.
As I settled into my seat at the movie theater, I was prepared for this film to go one of two ways—inspired adaptation or beautiful, hot mess. Instead, Luhrmann manages to do both. But that’s sort of Luhrmann’s aesthetic, really—big, loud, over-the-top, the kind of thing that, despite its ultra-modern visuals and 1920s setting, somehow manages to feel like a film from the forties where a director somehow managed to get more money than God to put their pulpy vision onscreen. As if to forcibly get you used to the lurid world of Luhrmann, the first half of the film is utterly frantic. It sent me right back to Moulin Rouge’s fevered pacing, which isn’t exactly a good thing. But, eventually, The Great Gatsby settles down, and you can finally get a handle on the thing.
The art of adaptation is one of my favorite subjects; I’ve written before about how films based on books can either attempt to be pure or pragmatic. While I find myself gravitating towards pragmatic adaptations, I appreciate both. But, in the case of The Great Gatsby, it almost has to be pragmatic. There’s already an iconic film version of the film; if you’re going to make another film adaptation of the novel, you’ve got to make it count.
In this post at Clothes on Film, Chris Laverty says that, in costume design for period films, you can either “1) recreate the era in question, 2) reflect the era in question.” In the entirety of the production design, Luhrmann has chosen the latter path. The score might be the most visible—melodramatically ornate and crammed full of anachronistic music. This is all aimed to evoke in modern audiences what the period-appropriate choices would evoke in their contemporary audiences. It’s the same reason A Knight’s Tale features a seventies rock soundtrack; teenagers of the nineties were not going to feel like champions jamming out to traditional medieval lays. (In a perfect, alternate world, that film would have kicked off a trend of anachronistically medieval teen dramas. Instead, all I’ve got is Reign. Thanks, CW!)
But enough about why Luhrmann made the choices he did—does it work? Mostly. I was initially upset by the framing device of Nick writing The Great Gatsby, because I’ve had it with the trope of films about writers’ lives revealing what they wrote about actually happened to them (if Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy aren’t making out in it, I am not interested), but, in the melodramatic, high saturation world of Luhrmann’s Gatsby, it fits. It even gives us some charmingly overwraught sequences when the cinematography decides showcasing Fitzgerald’s actual words on screen would be a good idea. The first half’s pacing is so frenetic and harsh that it’s difficult to breathe, but once it settles down, it’s easy to lose yourself in this unreal candyland. Because that’s the point—none of it is real.
All of this, is, of course, helped by the impeccable cast. At first, I thought Carey Mulligan might be too sympathetic to be Daisy, but she plays it off well. Tobey Maguire is a very capable Nick and Leonardo DiCaprio hurls himself into Gatsby with such charm, vulnerability, and desperation that he’s just magnetic. It’s probably not a coincidence that the film finally calms down when he finally makes his appearance. The towering grace that is Elizabeth Debicki is wonderful, but, as Jordan, she hasn’t much to do—Luhrmann forgets to remind us that Jordan is just as bad as the others. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is absolutely pitch-perfect. This cast would fare wonderfully in a more subdued adaptation; the fact that they can stand out even with all the other distractions is a testament to their abilities. (Also: the casting department should get an award for teen Gatsby Callan McAuliffe, because, even though I know what DiCaprio looked like as a teenager, this kid is still perfect.)
Ultimately, I don’t know if you can judge this on the same level as other adaptations of The Great Gatsby, given that Luhrmann has such an incredibly specific aesthetic. I enjoyed it, but perhaps the best and truest compliment this film can receive is that Luhrmann definitely made exactly the film he wanted. Whether or not it’s the same film the readers of the novel or the mainstream audiences of 2013 want is another thing altogether.
Bottom line: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is both an inspired adaptation and a beautiful, hot mess—Luhrmann definitely made exactly the film he wanted here. A definite hit or miss, but if you like Luhrmann, you’ll love this.
I saw this film in theaters.