The Great Gatsby (2013) – Baz Luhrmann

Though they are important, the secret to a great party is not so much in the decorations or the accoutrements but in the guests finding interest in who is there and what’s going on. I thought about this during Baz Luhrmann’s gothic, cloying, bass-heavy The Great Gatsby (2013), which is like a party of which the highlight is the invitation. Luhrmann’s subject, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), understands the principle. He threw great parties with the most ornate decorations and sumptuous entertainments where everyone had a great time except him because all the embellishments were designed to attract a specific guest and without her the parties meant nothing. I’m not going to go as far to suggest that The Great Gatsby meant nothing, but its intended guest, a movie worth watching, never arrived.

Perhaps it’s important to remember, as I feel like criticizing someone, that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that F. Scott Fitzgerald had, namely, his ability to stylistically and interestingly ply meaning and great depth from a pedestrian story. The Great Gatsby, the novel, is an often-read (or often-claimed-to-have-been-read) and often-misunderstood piece of literature. It has its detractors (and many have come out of the woodwork during its current return to pop culture), and it certainly doesn’t have a great champion in me, but I can recognize it as a masterpiece, a uniquely American piece of art that is both celebratory and critical of its characters and the time in which it was created. It is about greed and corruption; it is not a romance.

The 1974 movie The Great Gatsby, by Jack Clayton, misunderstood this completely, trying to wring genuine love from a place where it doesn’t exist. It was a failure but it failed on its terms. Luhrmann’s edition misunderstands in a different way, recognizing that the lives and loves of its characters are shallow but celebrating them for it, canonizing them for it. Jay Gatsby isn’t a tragedy because he didn’t get what he wanted; he’s a tragedy because he was great and what he wanted was beneath him. And he shouldn’t deserve our admiration for that. However, a movie could abandon the meaning of the novel it is based on and still be great. The problem is that Luhrmann’s Gatsby wants both to exude the quality of its source material and be great independent of it, but those two desires are incompatible, as far apart as Gatsby and the green light on the pier.

Our narrator is here as he is in the book, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), except in the movie, inanely, he’s writing his memories of the summer of 1922 in a sanitarium. This is the first of a number of stylistic decisions that Luhrmann makes in a desire to make the story hip, to respectfully remove the novel from its pristine sarcophagus of stuffy required reading. I can get behind that idea, but Luhrman insists on doing so in a tasteless way, one that is destined to become dated and stuffy itself. Here we have constant hip-hop and other current music throughout the movie, which would be fine; there’s no reason that the music should match the period, but we are meant to believe that the characters are actually listening to these tunes: They sing it, they dance to it, it’s being played at parties or out of their cars. Even when it’s trying to be accurate, it can’t win, having the partyers hear Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue a full two years before he composed it. Of course, Luhrmann has the right to make his movie and most of these decisions are innocuous and cosmetic, but that doesn’t make them any less empty headed.

Carraway tells of his youth in West Egg, Long Island, living next door to Gatsby, the mysterious socialite who threw New York’s most talked about parties. He also lived across the bay from Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Carraway’s cousin, who live in the old moneyed East Egg, where the respectable people idle away. In the dregs of the city, there’s George (Jason Clarke) and Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), poor blue-collar types. George pumps gas and Myrtle pumps Tom when Tom can get away from Daisy for the afternoon. Gatsby has been in love with Daisy for five years and has amassed huge amounts of wealth and prestige in an attempt to win her from Tom but discovers that not all money is created equal. Gatsby and Daisy carry on a brief affair, but ultimately it ends disastrously. The lives of the poor and the parvenu are changed forever, and the upper crust continues, as always, retreating back into their money or their vast carelessness.

Fitzgerald’s book is remarkable because it’s style so subtly undercuts its story, and it’s not until the end that its intentions are made clear. Luhrmann has the subtlety of a jackhammer, and while he professes to know the notes, what he makes isn’t music; it’s just noise. It has shimmering party scenes of fabulous costumes and remarkable jewelry, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being sold something I wasn’t interested in, with shots lingering on necklaces or jackets, like part of a feature-length commercial (I have since found out that the movie partnered with Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s, both of which have Gatsby-inspired lines available right now). This constant auctioning persisted throughout all aspects of the movie, giving the experience an uneasy feeling, as if something was constantly being shoved in my face. Often, this was literal, as Luhrmann’s camera, ever moving, was used to zoom-in time and time again to justify its use of 3-D. Other times, it was the meaning that was being thrust upon me, with characters stating their intentions and desires so bluntly and perpendicular to recognizable human behavior that at times the script seemed taken from Ionesco, not Fitzgerald. It was as if they stated their desires loudly enough, they would take on poignancy. They would have been better off simply shouting, “Wonderful dialogue!” and “Important moment!” Too often, certainly at the beginning, the tone is pitched at the level of a soap opera, with every ring of the phone foreboding and every glance furtive.

 The storytelling settles in for the final act, and Luhrmann is able to get out of his own way, but by then it’s too late, and things that happen generate an independent interest, divorced from the broad characters and muddled narrative that went before it. This represents the last gasp of what proved to be a great tale that is, in this case, choked to death by overwhelming style; it’s like a flower that needs nuance instead of water, subtext instead of sunlight, borne back, thankfully, into the past. 

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