Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan
As far as decades go, few are more evocative than the third of the 20th century. The 1920s are still revered today as a time of high society hedonism, week long parties, enormous affluence, and the embodiment of the American dream for the US. It is therefore one of literature’s most enduring ironies that the greatest and most prevalent piece of ‘20s popular culture is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book which ferociously attacks the high living lifestyle so indelibly tied with the era.
Fitzgerald’s work examines the life of Jay Gatsby, a character who represents the fullest realisation of the American dream in the eyes of others, but who personally sees his money and wealth as just an incidental tool in his relentless pursuit of old flame, Daisy Buchanan. The people who attend Gatsby’s parties do so uninvited, and are portrayed as vacuous narcissists worthy of contempt rather than envy.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann was always going to present a troubling choice to helm Gatsby. Renowned for his lavish productions of stories such as Moulin Rouge!, much pre-release apprehension stemmed from the fact that Luhrmann seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Gatsby’s hangers on, who’d stay for the parties but not in the man’s hour of need.
Indeed, if the omens were bad before the lights went down, they seem to be quickly confirmed through one of Gatsby’s (and literature’s) most enduring metaphors, the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock that stands for Gatsby’s goal, his finishing line for the years of toil he has endured to get within touching distance of her. The film’s protagonist Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) illuminates the image of Gatsby “Stood on the end of the dock, as if he was reaching out” toward Daisy’s (Carey Mulligan) light, and as he does this, the hitherto shadowy figure of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) physically extends his grasp. This one moment, of the visual triumphing over subtlety, tells you all you need to know about Luhrmann’s adaptation, or at least the first two thirds.
Despite all the reservations and misgivings that disciples of Fitzgerald’s work will (understandably) hold going in, they’re quickly swilled to the bottom of countless cocktail glasses. It’s impossible not to be swept up in Luhrmann’s alcoholic camera movements, as he never gives anything more than five seconds of time, a far cry from the book, which lends numerous pages to one conversation between Nick and a man in Gatsby’s library at the first major party. The book’s narrative cues are not so much reached as crossed off the list as though by an impatient shopper eager to get rid of the staple foods from their list so they can get to the heady, unpredictable choice of confectionery and alcohol.
However, this exhaustive pace is unsustainable, and as the film reaches its emotional climax in the final act, it’s more reminiscent of a sluggish hangover rather than the night before. Whilst purists may feel vindicated, as this slower, more deliberate pacing is far truer to the source material, it’s hard to get away from the idea that the conclusion simply isn’t as good as what had gone before. The fact that Luhrmann introduces a narrative frame to proceedings, has his Nick quite literally writing the book rather than dogmatically adhering to Fitzgerald’s pen suggests he wants the audience to watch it as his version, and the fact he returns to Fitzgerald toward the end feels somewhat like he’s welching on his side of the bargain.
This wildly uneven tone is also problematic when it comes to extracting a message from Gatsby’s gruesome, gaudy autopsy. Quite whether this restrained final act was a result of Luhrmann attempting to rein in his vision or establish the dichotomy between Gatsby’s outward partying lifestyle and his inward sorrow, it’s hard to get away from the sense that Gatsby is straining under the weight of its own conceit, that it enjoyed the parties and debauchery just a bit too much to then take a step back and moralise on them.
Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is a quandary, ultimately stuck in a purgatory between wanting to make the work his own and his need to pay deference to Fitzgerald. Luhrmann is not someone who can be accused of lacking hubris, although curiously in this case, it’s hard not to wish he had massaged his ego that little bit more and carried his vision all the way to the end.