Directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton
I’ve always liked Baz Luhrmann and always felt pretty “Meh” towards Leo DiCaprio. Well, for the latter, I had a massive crush on him during the Titanic craze, but who didn’t? As for Luhrmann, Moulin Rouge! remains one of my favorite go-to movies if I’m feeling sad. I listen to its soundtrack when I go for a run and I’m still completely in awe of the costumes and performances. So, prep me for a Luhrmann-writ-and-directed adaptation of the Great American Novel? I’m sold. Tell me DiCaprio is playing Jay Gatsby, tragic hero extraordinaire? I’m giving the skeptic side-eye.
It turns out I was surprised and disappointed in the results in equal measure, and they canceled each other out to a pretty enjoyable summer movie. Baz Luhrmann has created a beautiful, manic vision of 1920s New York, filled with artificial landscapes and mansions. The artificiality feels off-putting, but as one of my theater-going companions pointed out, it reflects the artifice that Gatsby creates in order to lure Daisy to West Egg.
In contrast, the casting wound up pretty perfect. DiCaprio embodies the charm and drive necessary to play Jay Gatsby, as well as the hollow determination in recreating the past. However, I’d consider Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway the real lynchpin for the film. Luhrmann adds another frame to the story – after the events of the novel, Carraway has experienced a mental breakdown and has checked himself into a mental hospital. His therapist recommends that he tells this story in order to move forward. It’s not a bad device, considering the rhetoric of the novel and the hollow results of Gatsby’s death. As Nick, Maguire is innocent to New York and its society, simply trying to make his way in the world. His innocence is what makes him a good match for Gatsby – he doesn’t want anything monetary from him, just that he can be a part of his small universe. Where Gatsby has hope in his green light, Carraway has idealism in Gatsby-the-man. What the adaptation skips over are Carraway’s own flaws, even his disastrous relationship with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Instead, he hangs out in the background, stuck with observing the glamorous tragedy in front of him.
The adaptation moves at about the same pace as the novel. The first half is devoted to the spectacle of the city and of Gatsby’s West Egg parties. Discussions are given over to Gatsby’s origins and the Buchanan’s broken marriage. Nick Carraway is thrown into it, at once landed in society and drifting along, having things happen to him instead of doing anything on his own.
There’s the awkward scene where Gatsby invades Nick’s house to fill it with flowers and cakes after he constructs an afternoon tea with Daisy. Nick leaves the house during a downpour to allow the couple’s reunion, but when he returns it’s like his presence doesn’t matter. He could have stayed in the house and still Gatsby and Daisy would be lost in their own world. He’s the Toulouse-Lautrec character from Moulin Rouge!, except he’s the only one capable of telling the story.
The Great Gatsby has a lot in common with Luhrmann’s jukebox musical. In many ways, it feels like the actual third film of the Red Curtain Trilogy, replacing Strictly Ballroom. Gatsby is located somewhere between Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, as it’s an adaptation of classic literature that has become updated to modern taste, but with the scope of a fantasy world from Moulin Rouge!
So: Is it the most perfect adaptation of the novel? No, of course not. Is it in a Luhrmann-frenzied style? Yeah, totally. But it’s summer movie season, when manic editing and awesome soundtracks trump sensible movie-making art.