Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is lurid, shallow, glamorous, trashy, tasteless, seductive, sentimental, aloof, and artificial. It’s an excellent adaptation, in other words, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melodramatic American classic. Luhrmann, as expected, has turned “Gatsby” into a theme-park ride. But he’s done it in exactly the right way. He hasn’t tried to make the novel more respectable, intellectual, or realistic. Instead, he’s taken “The Great Gatsby” very seriously just as it is.
“Gatsby” is hard to pin down. On the one hand, it’s broadly understood as a classic American novel, which suggests that it must have important things to say about the twenties, money, love, and the American dream. On the other, it seems self-evidently to be about style over substance. It’s short (only a hundred and fifty pages); its plot is absurd; and it examines only the thinnest wedge of American life.
Joshua Rothman, “The serious superficiality of The Great Gatsby,” The New Yorker, May 13, 2013
This argument is such a boldly counter-intuitive one that I’ve seen it made in at least half-a-dozen different places around the internet since I saw the movie last night (e.g.). It doesn’t wash; Spring Breakers is a better Gatsby than Luhrmann’s if it’s dizzying crapulence you’re looking for. (As suggested here and here.)
But, yes, Fitzgerald’s story is lurid and shallow and all of those things, but it isn’t the way Luhrmann’s is; the artificiality of the novel is more like that of Mad Men, which captures the novel’s spirit better than this film. Mad Men, like Gatsby, has at its center a Midwestern Horatio Alger, one with a shady past and a false identity. It seeks to capture the entirety of an era while never shifting its gaze from the wealthiest slice of its society. And, importantly, it has that same oneiric quality, as well as a seductive elevation of style — as distinct from spectacle — over substance. (Gatsby with its language, Mad Men with its design aesthetic.) It has that same pervasive melancholy in spite of itself. Both are soapy, and sometimes preposterously so, but soapy doesn’t need to mean loud or busy. And, sorry Baz, but it should never mean boring.
Isabel is right about the shirts, though I don’t agree with her about Leo. I do about Tobey Maguire though. He wandered through this picture with that air of dimwitted amiability that seems to have become the essence of the only character he knows how to play. The performance wasn’t wrong for the part he was playing, but it felt like someone’s vision of the role was Peter Parker as Nick Carraway and so this casting choice was made.
The framing device of Carraway as author was dreadful, exactly as bad as when Life of Pi made that mistake — though at least here it didn’t seem as if it was done because the brains behind it thought they needed a white guy to act as an intermediary between the Indian main character and the audience. See here for more:
The most irritating thing about The Great Gatsby (which I mostly enjoyed) was Tobey Maguire’s voice-over. “He had the kind of smile that seemed to believe you, and understand you as you wanted to be believed and understood,” says Tobey over a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio giving us exactly that kind of smile. And then, later, “Gatsby looked in that moment as if he had killed a man,” Tobey says over an image of DiCaprio looking — yes! — exactly like someone who had killed a man.
There’s something uncomfortable about Luhrmann’s apparent fascination with the physicality of black bodies, though there’s a chance he may be channeling Fitgerald’s presentation of the same, viz, for instance:
A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday. As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
This though, from the New Yorker piece:
Fitzgerald understood the pleasures of giving in, and he saw people as desperate to give in to nearly anything — a drink, a person, a story, a feeling, a song, a crowd, an idea. We were especially willing, he thought, to give in to ideas — to fantasies. “Gatsby” captures, with great vividness, the push and pull of illusion and self-delusion; the danger and thrill of forgetting, lying, and fantasizing; the hazards and the indispensability of dreaming and idealization.
And Luhrmann doesn’t know how to seduce; he can only aim to awe. Which, sure, might be like Gatsby the man, but not much at all like Gatsby the story.