The Great Gatsby, dir. Baz Luhrman. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan.
This film is, first of all, a spectacle of light. Luhrman understands that thousands of lumens of colored light make a picture jump out at the audience. From the fantastic pastels of Gatsby’s shirts to the fireworks over Long Island Sound, each shot of Luhrman’s Gatsby is suffused with otherwordly quantities of light. It brightens everything, but it makes Carey Mulligan entirely luminous. The other characters are brightly-lit, but every old-money inch of her is on fire. And that suits Daisy Buchanan, the hothouse starlet, just fine.
Light is a blessing and a curse. In some of the panning shots of Gatsby’s fantastic castle and the Buchanans’ neo-classical manse, the windows are so blazing bright, like Thomas Kinkade’s improbable cottages, that they must be on fire from the inside.
There’s nothing subtle about this adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. The booze, the girls, the parties–it leaves the old Robert Redford Gatsby standing still in the dust for pure spectacle. Many shots are stylish and truly breathtaking, more Jay-Z (who produced the film) than Fitzgerald (who wrote the book). But we, the audience, are fine with that.
The scenes in this movie that stumble come mostly near the beginning. The orgy at Tom’s place in the city is totally overdone. The colors, the drugs, the booze, the costumes–it’s just too much. Luhrman is clumsily emphasizing that Myrtle and her sort are a lower order than the perfectly-attired Buchanans and Gatsbys of the world, but good grief–Myrtle’s whore-scarlet dress is the most over-the-top garment in history, closely followed by that worn by her cousin, whose makeup doesn’t smear as she locks lips with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway. Stylistically and thematically, some things fall flat: the crump-dancing girls at Wolfsheim’s speakeasy and the random Duesenburg full of dancing Nigerian oil barons and their molls (c. 1999) that Gatsby and Carraway pass on the Queensboro bridge. But these are distractions. The real show, when it comes, is something else.
After a certain point, we settle in to watch Gatsby’s story come together for its great unraveling. Gatsby walks, his perfect white suit drenched, into the flower-crowded room in Nick Carraway’s cottage, and sees Daisy there, and the movie becomes nobler. Nick Carraway reads more of the seminal text itself, and the illusion that you have stepped into a dreamlike, Technicolor version of Fitzgerald’s novel is nearly complete. Every scene, from the nightmarish City of Ashes to Gatsby’s last swim, is near-perfect.
DiCaprio, Mulligan, and Edgerton perform well as Jay Gatsby, and Daisy and Tom Buchanan respectively. Perennial schoolboy Tobey Maguire falters in a few scenes, but by the time he confronts Gatsby about running over Myrtle, he, like Nick Carraway himself, summons the wherewithal to be Gatsby’s friend and Daisy’s erstwhile protector, and not just another callow hanger-on.
As the film nears its climax, in the sweltering room at The Plaza where Gatsby and Tom clash, the tension and the heat and the sweat and Gatsby’s growing mania are perfectly measured. As the film nears its end, Nick Carraway’s typed words appear on the screen over the green light, “And so we beat back, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Luhrman is not a subtle director. But in adapting this film, he chained himself to the book, and for the most part the eye candy and hip-hop he offers underline and strengthen the time-tested story of the novel, not weaken it. This is the sort of adaptation any novelist would dream of: faithful to the source material but modern, stylish, expensive–hugely scaled without feeling like a mountain adaptation of a molehill.
Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby somersaults across the style/substance tightrope with grace and panache. It’s loud and brass-gilt and smoky, like the age it hearkens. And it’s not just a 3D FX spectacle; like the book, it’s a careful, dark, and beautiful dismemberment of hope.