Director: Baz Luhrmann
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Baz Luhrmann is a director with a particular affinity for the past. He has taken on Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet ) and Puccini (Moulin Rouge! ), dealt with his country’s pre-World War II past (Australia ), and examined a dance style only nostalgia buffs and professionals practice these days (Strictly Ballroom ). His regard for the past and penchant for grandeur and spectacle, apparent in all these efforts, was bound to pull him like a helpless planet to the black hole that is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
I’ve heard the conventional wisdom that Gatsby is unfilmable and wondered why. There are enough beautiful images and marvelous character descriptions to make even the most pedestrian cinematographer drool. The story is dramatic and eternal, both specific to the shell-shocked fear of annihilation after World War I that drove the frenzied debauchery and criminality that was the Roaring ’20s, and hopeful about the restorative power of love. What appears more the stumbling block to me is the first-person narration of Nick Carraway, who sides with Gatsby as a hero he hoped to emulate and therefore can view no one as a truly real person. It takes a special kind of director to film the illusions of a first-person narrator, to question the perceptions to arrive at a deeper truth while moving the story along.
Baz Luhrmann succeeds in creating a vulgar, seductively repellent world, mostly succeeds in suggesting the beauty and pain of love and admiration, and mostly fails in impeaching Nick Carraway’s illusions to offer more realistic assessments of the characters in the film. Nonetheless, as a work that offers a piquant parallel to the recent past—the televised slaughter of the Vietnam War, followed by a sustained period of greed and social carelessness—Baz Luhrmann proves his timing for producing a Gatsby was right on the money. Luhrmann is a genius visualist who creates images and milieus that reach directly into our unconscious and pull all sorts of mythic triggers that help us grapple with the larger implications of this love story. Indeed, his visual acuity nearly overcomes his failure to help his cast embody their characters with any authority, thus undercutting the moral echoes arising from the tragedies that will unfold.
The first question Luhrmann faced was whether to acknowledge the autobiographical elements in Fitzgerald’s novel. I believe he makes a mistake in doing so, making Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a failed writer who only unleashes his gift after his fateful months in the orbit of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), his spectacularly nouveau riche neighbor in West Egg, Long Island. Had he stuck with the original scheme of making Carraway simply a self-taught bond trader, and less self-consciously sandwiched Carraway’s ramshackle home between the behemoth Gatsby mansion and the looming estate just across the sound in East Egg where cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old-money husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) live, we might have been able to see Nick as one of the new 49ers heading east for the gold mines on Wall Street, gazing enviously at the riches all around him. Instead, he seems an insider not only by dint of being Daisy’s distant cousin and therefore heir to some of the attitudes of the monied class, but also by a certain noblesse oblige that accompanies the figure of the artist, a bit of a minor god who only lacks enough money to ascend to the top of society. Fitzgerald was precise in marking the levels of the American social totem pole, but Luhrmann offers a more democratic mixing of the classes, rendering Tom’s rant about the threat to the white race more of a WTF moment than the virulent line in the sand it is.
Luhrmann delays our introduction to Gatsby, tantalizing us with shots of the ring on his finger or his figure silhouetted against the night sky. In the midst of Gatsby’s weekly bacchanal, for which Nick is singled out and made to feel special as the only one with a written invitation, we finally get our formal introduction . . . and it’s Leonardo DiCaprio. I would say there is something meta about having a celebrity play a celebrity of sorts, but then a big movie like Gatsby would never have been made with an unknown in the title role. How unfortunate that DiCaprio is not given the room to inhabit his role, to shade it with the obsessive and violent tones that, say, James Cagney, brought to Gatsby contemporary and real-life gangster Martin Snyder in Love Me or Leave Me (1955), completely unpolished, but nonetheless, not a bad model for a figure ruthlessly immoral and pragmatic in service to attaining his goal. Instead, it is nearly impossible to forget his similarly romantic underdog role in Titanic (1997), taking the air out of any suggestion that Gatsby is no role model for anyone who wants to maintain their conscience intact.
The role of Daisy is similarly problematic. Nick’s first encounter with Daisy in the Buchanan sitting room is visual perfection: the diaphanous, floor-to-ceiling curtains lining the bay of open doors blowing like the clouds of Olympus through the room, with Daisy stirring from her nap on a sofa and rising into view like Venus emerging from the foam. Alas, no mere mortal, and certainly not the featherweight Carey Mulligan, could possibly take command from such visual poetry. Despite the fact that Daisy is only a goddess in Gatsby’s eyes, it is essential that the audience feel her fall from grace to understand the deep tragedy of Nick’s assessment that Tom and Daisy “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Instead, Daisy seems nice enough, perky, pretty, without the careless and shallow obliviousness that Nick diagnoses as she disingenuously declares that the world is a terrible place—her anger at her husband’s philandering shows a depth of feeling Mulligan plumbed without linking it to Daisy’s blinding self-involvement.
Nonetheless, Luhrmann finds ways to get around how basically uninteresting his characters come across by offering some pointed choices that had my head spinning with admiration. A first look at Gatsby’s gauche abode brought out feelings of revulsion in me at the kind of acquisitive excess that signals a great many people were hurt to achieve such tasteless extravagance. In this way, the influence of Joseph Conrad on Fitzgerald, particularly the parallel to the moral rot underlying colonialism, comes clearly into focus and helps put this film in company, however indirectly, with such anti-colonial classics as Lord Jim (1965) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Luhrmann’s staging of the first party Nick attends at Gatsby’s mansion brings all of his talent for detailed razzle dazzle to the forefront. Luhrmann packs the scene, distracting the eye in every direction with fountains of champagne, jazz musicians, and merrymakers of all sizes in exquisite period dress dancing, drinking, and swooning from the excess of it all. Offering a close-up of Gatsby superimposed on a sky exploding with fireworks adds a humorous and old-fashioned American spin to this weekly event, an Independence Day every bit as stage-managed for happiness as the nightly fireworks at Disney’s theme parks.
Luhrmann’s rendering of the Valley of Ashes is appropriately dirty, but not much more. One wonders at the existence of such a no-man’s land between Long Island and Manhattan, with Wilson’s Garage seeming like the last gas station before Death Valley. As such, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) is the ripe and wayward wife of a feckless fool (Jason Clarke) found in so many Western noirs, which provides an interesting genre non sequitur. Luhrmann comments on the bogeyman of today—the Islamist—by casting Amitabh Bachchan, an Indian actor with an Arabian look, as Fitzgerald’s Semite Meyer Wolfsheim. Gatsby and Nick’s foray into Wolfsheim’s speakeasy is like a descent into the casbah in Marrakesh, and Bachchan, rather than being overwhelmed by setting, matches his talent to it to bring a truly sinister air to his character.
The one symbol that resonated for me was the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s pier. Luhrmann offers an image of Gatsby reaching for it across the water with great longing. Much has been said about the green light, but for me, it echoed of the Arthurian myth of the Green Knight, a tale of renewal and honor derived from a more ancient myth of the pagan Green Man. While this myth comes in numerous shapes and forms, the one that pairs best with it is the trials to which Sir Gawain is put on the eve of his beheading by the Green Knight, whom he beheaded as part of the knight’s challenge one year earlier. Sir Gawain, a knight of the Round Table, is true to his bond of honor to forfeit his head per the agreement, and also keeps to the rules of hospitality by rejecting the advances of his host’s wife on three separate occasions. When the day of his “execution” arrives, he is merely nicked on the neck, having proven himself worthy of rule over the affairs of humanity.
Gatsby, of course, is a rule breaker, a criminal, and an adulterer. That he dies through Tom’s manipulations, protecting Daisy, is of no ultimate account. In Arthurian legend, Camelot was nearly destroyed by the affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, and Gatsby’s chivalry toward Daisy does not cleanse his dishonor. We can sympathize with Gatsby’s eternal love, and Leo lovers will feel he has been terribly wronged, but his rush on Daisy did not truly take into account her choice. She could have waited for him, but eventually chose not to, and did not nurse the romantic ideals he held as a guiding light to get him through the war. Gatsby, a WWI veteran born James Gats of a poor farming family in the upper Midwest, made up the world as he went along, but the world was not his alone to mold.
Unfortunately, for many film fans, the glamour of the rich, particularly during the uberstylish ’20s, is enormously seductive. The costumes and sets will do for the vast majority of moviegoers and AMPAS members. Baz Luhrmann knows how to deliver eye candy better than almost any director alive, and he has pushed his visuals into new and more meaningful territory. Sadly, his actors seem like little more than props. While this version of The Great Gatsby represents an improvement on previous efforts, I’m still waiting for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deceptively complex novel to get the cinematic treatment it deserves.