There’s no two ways of getting around it; Baz Luhrmann’s misappropriation of The Great Gatsby (2013) is a befuddled synthesis of fanatical pomposity: ostentatious and disgraceful; even more infrequently a stylized bastardization hacked together by editors Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa with all the finesse of an angry music video (albeit, one executed by a break-dancing chicken) and unreservedly absent of the concept of grand tragedy marking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterwork. There has never been a superior movie made of The Great Gatsby, I suspect because Fitzgerald’s novel about the epic implosion of the American Dream is much more a testament to the conflicted emotional content of its seriously flawed characters (always difficult to express in visual terms) while the movies have all succumbed in one way or another to retelling the tale from a perspective of vintage kitsch. But at least at some base level all previous attempts strove to tap into the essence and central theme of the novel. Luhrmann’s tryst with the Long Island rich simply plays out like a mentally disturbed party guest having outstayed its welcome.
With maximum spectacle but a complete lack of comprehension for the novel’s dramatic intensity, Luhrmann has given us something that faintly smells like, periodically looks like, but never truly is like the roaring 1920s; a whirling dervish for the wretched post-postmodern generation and silliness about an obtuse carousel of wax mannequins who never come to life. DiCaprio’s moon-faced, glowering Gatsby isn’t conflicted so much as he chronically suffers from some angst-ridden constipation, while his paramour, Daisy Buchanan (played with ineffectual poutiness by Carey Mulligan (who fancies herself a dreadful crossover from Theda Bara to baby-cooing knock off of Marilyn Monroe – she’s neither) has been so heavily rewritten by Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pierce as to make her appear almost as much the victim as Jay Gatsby. As with the 1974 version of this immortal love triangle, the most fascinating characters in this embarrassing remake are those standing just off to the side: Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) – and possibly, Amitabh Bachchan who manages to capture at least a bit of the oily slickness of Meyer Wolfsheim.
Luhrmann’s complete inability to grasp the period beyond Catherine Martin/Karen Murphy’s production design – itself, an appalling display of bobbed-hair, spangle-clad bodies writhing to the incongruously mismatched, eardrum-abusing techo/rap being pumped out by the likes of Jay Z, Beyonce, Green Light and Fergie (to name but a handful) strips the vintage appeal down to its most gruesome, monotonous and fairly obscene cabaret show – glitzy but gutless, and presented as thought-numbing tedium. If Fitzgerald’s prose remain the crown jewel of high literary art then Luhrmann’s Gatsby can only be described as the cubic zirconium of cheap cut-glass imitators; tricked out in 3D (and not even successfully at that, with some very obvious ‘green screen’ work adding to the artificiality in unconvincing ways) and shot by Simon Duggan whose camera seems to be suffering from acute bouts of epilepsy. No, The Great Gatsby has slipped so far down the rabbit hole into rank vulgarity that it doesn’t even realize how woefully trashy it is; completely missing its mark thematically.
We’ve all seen what can happen when Baz Luhrmann attempts to do serious – Australia (2008) anyone? Yet, herein the straddling of that chasm between integrity to Fitzgerald, ergo seriousness and, his own idiosyncratic verve for turning everything he touches into another Moulin Rouge (2001) is ineffectual herein in the extreme. Add to this already half-baked and overweening fantasia the stifling trickery of 3D as camouflage for a ‘good story gone bad’ and Gatsby becomes the cinematic equivalent of a fruit salad disingenuous to its leafy greens; the tale completely robbed of its derivation. Luhrmann is a bad fit for Fitzgerald. So is 3D. The movie plays like a ‘Baby Einstein’ version of the author’s luminous prose. Without Tobey McGuire’s expository reflections, cribbing whole passages excised directly from the novel (and some inexplicably rewritten by Luhrmann and Pearce), The Great Gatsby devolves into epicurean sensory overload; the doomed romance capsized by its nauseous camerawork and an anachronistic soundtrack; enough to anesthetize but never enthrall. The virtuosity of Fitzgerald’s original tale is that it quietly shrouds its generation of ‘go to hell’ tea dance/bathtub gin/rum runner and gangster-plagued optimists in a veil of embalming introspection, gleaned through hindsight. As such Fitzgerald’s novel has not only come to epitomize the period but also foreshadows its glittery demise. That Luhrmann totally fails to grasp this concept marks his Great Gatsby a flagrant claptrap, a missed opportunity and an absolutely purposeless adaptation. The party sequences, with their dizzying array of flailing bodies clad in lurid Color-form cutouts showered in a torrential downpour of confetti are the best moments in the film from a purely visual perspective. But these parties are not the crux of the story – or rather, shouldn’t be: instead, that the life of the party, Jay Gatsby, is an insecure, love-struck fraud.
This Great Gatsby has found its audience among those who care not or know next to nothing of Fitzgerald’s novel and will never aspire to read it (I feel sorry for them), think Leo - in anything - is sexy times ten (that one’s always baffled me) or believe Baz Luhrmann to be an iconoclastic genius (he’s not). Luhrmann has merely ripped a page from his already trademarked playbook. It’s the same page we’ve seen him exploit to better effect elsewhere in his repertoire. Merely reapplying the precepts of a Moulin Rouge! with the broadest of strokes to Fitzgerald’s finely wrought and intricately balanced eloquence doesn’t gild the lily of Gatsby’s literary pedigree but, in fact, deadheads its flourish. The novel is ‘prime’; the movie merely primed and prone to extravagances.
Just because Luhrmann can-can-can, and did-did-did, doesn’t mean that he should-should-should! But he has-has-has and now we’re stuck-stuck-stuck with another forgettable and disenfranchised version of The Great Gatsby. The good news is that this one won’t last. The bad news: The Great Gatsby, like his alter ego in the movie, remains an enigma difficult – if not impossible - to explain in visual terms.
I wanted to like The Great Gatsby because I absolutely adore the novel. But from the moment Luhrmann introduces us to his CGI overview of Long Island, the camera is in a constant state of visual distress looking for something intelligent to light on before settling for garish glimpses across the moneyed lawns and behind the boudoirs of the decadent rich. There’s just no build up, no evolution to that style. It’s ‘in your face’ and instantly overwhelming, with Toby Maguire’s Nick Caraway seduced into self-destruction; the camera bobbing and weaving through this Manhattan-esque labyrinth with a shake, rattle and roll mentality.
Former Yale graduate and WWI veteran Nick Carraway (Maguire) is recovering from alcoholism in a sanatorium, his mind a steel trap of mumblings about a man named Gatsby. As therapy, Nick sits down to write the story of his friendship with the infamous Long Island recluse. None of this opener is indigenous to Fitzgerald’s novel. We regress to the summer of 1922 (a scant three years earlier) – but somehow an infinitely more prosperous time imbued with American optimism. Surprise, surprise: Nick’s a bond salesman – and sober. He’s rented a cottage in West Egg adjacent the uber glamorous palatial digs of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). One weekend Nick motors to East Egg for dinner at the home of his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), an old college acquaintance. Nick also meets Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a pro golfer cynical beyond her years who Daisy plots a romantic entanglement.
Jordan lets the cat out of the bag – Tom has a mistress; Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of gas pump jockey and garage owner, George Wilson (Jason Clarke). The next afternoon Tom shamelessly takes Nick to meet Myrtle, the three indulging in a rendezvous at the apartment Tom has set up for Myrtle in town. Myrtle decides to throw a party; the mood turning from playfully bizarre to absolute rot after an inebriated Myrtle berates Tom about Daisy. Tom breaks her nose, but not her heart. Nick is appalled by his glimpse into these private lives. Yet he continues to move in the same social circles, presumably because the elixir of wealth is just too potent to pass up. Then, one afternoon he receives a hand-delivered invitation to one of Jay Gatsby’s lavish outdoor parties; a glittering assemblage of sycophants and sinners – none of whom know anything except the name of their host.
Rumors abound. Nick meets up with Jordan and together they inadvertently are introduced to Gatsby; too young for a billionaire, too aloof to be a playboy – the enigma framed against a backdrop of exploding bombshells and gyrating revelers. As the party winds down Jay lures Nick upstairs for a private audience, taking an instant liking to him. A short while later Gatsby introduces Nick to Meyer Wolfshiem (Amitabh Bachchan), a racketeer who fixed the 1919 World Series. To quell Nick’s curiosities about Wolfsheim, Gatsby spins a yarn: that he was born to old money back east, his parents now dead, his money inherited and his record during the war impeccable. In fact, most of what Gatsby tells Nick is a lie, although it will take Nick the better half of the story to discover he’s been duped.
Nick, Gatsby and Wolfshiem run into Tom during lunch, Gatsby growing impatient and uncomfortable by the moment in his presence. Through Jordan, Nick discovers that Gatsby and Daisy were desperately in love. But that was 1917 – a lifetime ago to the flapper set. And Daisy was not about to marry Gatsby then. After all, he was penniless. Gatsby takes Nick into his confidences, pleading for a rendezvous with Daisy at his cottage. Nick willingly agrees and Daisy arrives without being told first that Gatsby will be there. After a queerly painful reunion, Gatsby and Daisy resume their passionate love affair. But Gatsby is rather dismayed when Daisy asks him to run away with her far from the moneyed playgrounds they presently occupy. Observing this disconnect between Daisy and Gatsby, Nick tries to explain to Gatsby that the past cannot be repeated.
As Gatsby is unwilling to accept this, he instead lays off most of his servants and stops throwing lavish house parties to devote all of his time to convincing Daisy that everything they need to make their love endure is right here. Frustrated by his stalemate, Gatsby makes an impromptu telephone call, asking Nick and Jordan to attend him at the Buchanans’ where he has decided to confront Tom with the news of his wife’s infidelity. But Gatsby’s nerve weakens. All through lunch he casts adoring glances in Daisy’s direction. Naturally, this infuriates Tom. At just about the moment when Gatsby has finally worked up the guts to make his confession stick, Daisy interrupts on an absurd notion they should all go into town for drinks at the Plaza Hotel. Frustrated, Tom drives Gatsby’s car with Nick and Jordan while Daisy rides in Tom’s car with Gatsby.
On the way Tom stops at Wilson’s garage for some gas, George informing him that he has decided to pull up stakes and move out west with Myrtle. In actuality, George knows that Myrtle is having an affair, although not even he suspects Tom as her suitor. Tom, already bitter and suspicious, arrives at the Plaza looking to pick a fight. Having hired a private investigator earlier, Tom decides to reveal the truth about Gatsby’s past to everyone; that he had no money but, in fact, made his mark in bootlegging and managing other illegal activities for Meyer Wolfshiem. Gatsby isn’t a gentleman. He’s not even of their class. He’s just thug muscle for the mob. Refusing to believe Tom, Daisy leaves the Plaza in a huff with Gatsby trailing after her – this time, in his car – with Nick, Jordan and Tom departing some time later.
On the road back to West Egg Myrtle is run down by Gatsby’s car wildly careening down the darkened street. Tom, Nick and Jordan arrive much later to survey the crowd of onlookers; Tom becoming incensed. As payback, Tom lets it be known to George the car that killed his wife belongs to Gatsby. But even he cannot fathom that Daisy – not Jay – was in the driver’s seat. Gatsby decides to tell Nick the truth about what happened and also to come clean about his background; that he was born James Gatz – an impoverished scrapper who clawed his way up from nothing by the only means available to him, yet seemingly for altruistic reasons…nee, true love. Nick is sympathetic. But the next day while he is at work Jay is brutally gunned down by George who then takes his own life.
Nick makes the funeral arrangements, disgusted when Daisy does not attend, but instead has decided to go on a little holiday with Tom and their daughter. Reporters crash the burial and Nick angrily chases everyone away. Fueled by rumors and innuendo the press pillages Jay’s reputation for their headlines: that Gatsby was Myrtle’s lover, who ran her down in a fit of rage and was then assassinated by her jealous husband. Insulted, but unable to stem the tide of this speculation with the truth Nick takes one last long look about Gatsby’s one-time fashionable mansion – the house and all its gaiety and superficial glitz suddenly a very cold, impersonal mausoleum. Nick departs New York. We regress to the present with Nick, now bleary-eyed but perhaps liberated from his own pitiful demons, concludes his memoir, titling it, The Great Gatsby.
It is virtually impossible to envision a movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby less in keeping with the contemplative spirit of Fitzgerald’s prose than this preposterously glossy twaddle. Luhrmann cannot resist the urge to turn Nick Caraway into a veritable repository; a sort of retrofitted Dorian Gray knock-off. In its purest form, that being the novel, The Great Gatsby is a bittersweet Valentine to a bygone generation Fitzgerald knew all too well. Reconstituted by Baz Luhrmann, the story entirely lacks in this overriding sense of doom and ultimate sacrifice. What we get instead is an encumbered and caliginous affair, neither satirical nor subversive, but brutally faithful to Fitzgerald’s plot without ever scratching the surface of his deeper themes that make for some brilliant storytelling. None of the novel’s subtle nuances have endured. Instead, like a record that is spinning too fast, everything is sledge-hammered home by Luhrmann with all the noisy aplomb of a defiant declaration made from the pit of the elders.
Only DiCaprio’s central performance survives the deluge of this magnificent misfire – partly. But DiCaprio’s is a little long in the tooth to be playing Fitzgerald’s tormented adult as an inquisitive man-child. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is rather hopeless, not entirely the actress’ fault, but Luhrmann’s, for remaking Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan as the unwitting and rather witless victim when in reality she has been the architect of Jay Gatsby’s solemn demise. Joel Edgerton’s Tom is a snore – more turgid and ineffectual than the ‘hulking brute’ Daisy makes him out to be, while Elizabeth Debicki entirely lacks Jordan Baker’s exquisite languor to be anything more than sly eye candy. This brings us to Toby McGuire’s entirely forgettable deus ex machine; a careless/careworn reconstitution of the novel’s Nick Caraway and much too morose and dispensable besides.
The movie (as well as the actors) is robbed of the realities of the physical space both occupy; the world of this Jay Gatsby heavy-handedly realized in postproduction with a ton of CGI. In the briefest of moments when location work remains generally unfettered by those zeroes and ones the competency of its star performances rises from wan to wondrous. Tragically, there are all too few of these aforementioned moments in the actual film. As such, the only real depth derived from this version of The Great Gatsby comes from its gimmicky use of 3D: the story as one-dimensional as any yet conceived for the big screen.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray release is more promising on all levels; its’ 2.40:1 image eye-popping. All of the absurdities in Simon Duggan’s cinematography are faithfully represented herein, the synthetic quality of the image that is intentionally artificial and looking just that in hi-def. Colors explode, contrast is superb and film grain accurately resurrected. The 3D version and the 2D version are fairly similar – the gimmick used sparingly and really adding nothing to the overall appeal of the movie. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you don’t need artificially induced depth perception to tell a good story and in the case of The Great Gatsby, neither version is particularly good. The 5.1 DTS audio will rock your speakers with consistently intelligible dialogue, bombastic outbursts of music and directional effects. In short – perfect.
Extras: we get featurettes devoted to virtually every phase of production. The Greatness of Gatsby has Luhrmann waxing about Fitzgerald’s novel and his collaboration with screenwriter Craig Pearce. Within and Without with Tobey Maguire is a video journal kept by Maguire during the shoot, self-congratulatory and dull. The Swinging Sounds of Gatsby is an attempt by Luhrmann and composer Craig Armstrong to justify their bastardization of the period with contemporary music sandwiched between the traditional jazz. It still doesn’t work for me. Others may disagree. The Jazz Age contains excerpts from Ken Burns’ PBS documentary interrupted by Luhrmann’s own commentary, while Razzle Dazzle: focuses on the film’s costume design. There’s also Fitzgerald’s Visual Poetry where Luhrmann makes a real leaden attempt to explain his concept of “poetic glue” – translation: how I mucked around with Fitzgerald’s prose and came up with gumbo.
Warner has also padded this disc with a bunch of specific ‘behind the scenes’ junkets – even more superficial than the actual movie: Gatsby Revealed features five scene breakdowns and three deleted snippets with an intro by Luhrmann. Bottom line: The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald is a sublime masterpiece. The Great Gatsby by Luhrmann is an atrocity that won’t even do the favor of putting you to sleep.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)