Great Parties, Not So Great ‘Gatsby’
Fitzgerald’s Gatsby knows how to throw a party. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is more into the earth-shaking business, throwing the whole, wide world into a feverish orbit around his seething lakeside castle. His are less parties of man than of the gods. The attendance is in the hundreds, a mass of joyous, gyrating bodies on the dance floor. There’s an indoor pool, lit from within, and a ceiling decorated with chandeliers as well as a view of the night sky. There’s glitter and glamor, a breaking and converging of racial and class boundaries into a single, elemental heartbeat that considers celebration a way of life. Forget the Roaring Twenties. With a soundtrack comprising the likes of Jay-Z, Fergie, and Sia, Luhrmann unites ‘20s hip with 21st century hop, toasting a Roaring Century replete with all the sex and booze of the American party dream blown up to Kubrick-esque proportions.
Yes, the newest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby knows how to party. If only it knew how to tell a story. There’s so much here – a sterling cast, gorgeous sets and, of course, a legendary plotline – but the film botches most of it because it can’t seem to bring it all together in a pleasing, aesthetically coherent way. The worst of it occurs right at the beginning in an opening sequence that is nothing short of a wreck. In the span of five minutes, the film sprints through at least three different shifts in tone and introduces most of the major characters until Daisy’s famous “Gatsby? What Gatsby?” is abruptly uttered, deflated of all dramatic vitality. The segment is so heavily edited that it feels like the film is having a seizure. I was certainly on the verge of having one. To watch one of the most beloved American novels being diced up into a blitzkrieg of empty stylistic devices is to experience a debilitating of the spirit.
Thankfully, the rest of the film puts on the brakes a little, but much of it still careens at a dangerous speed. Perhaps Luhrmann was trying to convey the breakneck lifestyle of the Lost Generation by going hard and fast all the way through, but he goes too hard and too fast. One of the joys of Fitzgerald’s novel is the way it immerses readers in the textures of the time period. It wants us to feel the robustness of life in the ’20s, the way landscapes, people, and architecture interacted to create the distinctiveness of that time and place. Lurhmann’s film could have done that. It could have dwelled more on Manhattan’s urban pulse and the Queensboro Bridge connecting it to a field of ash, or the Long Island Sound, impassive and immaculate, stretched between the East and West Eggs where ornate houses stand with gaudy splendor.
But all Luhrmann does is go-go-go. Where the film should have been evoking the ’20s from a 2013 perspective, it often feels more like a 2013 action movie. A drive through the city takes on the absurdly muscular visuals of the Fast and the Furious films. Conversations feel antsy, not because of what is being said but because the camera’s gaze is darting around like the Energizer Bunny, unable to fixate on one thing for more than a few seconds. Even the party scenes, mighty as they are, could have toned down the rapid cutting to let us further appreciate the energy of the images. Gatsby becomes all surfaces and little soul, a slave to its own overuse of CGI and manic editing. If anything, it reminded me of Gangster Squad, another film that tried to evoke a past American era by vaguely adopting the period’s auras and attitudes. In the process of reproducing and restyling their respective historical moments, both films, at least to some extent, lose touch with authentic humanity.
The interesting thing about Gatsby is how exceedingly hard it tries to preserve that human element. The effort is admirable, but it is also the source of the film’s central problem. One could argue that, in the way it so obsessively develops style over substance, the movie satirizes the vapid culture of the ’20s upper class and the materialistic American Dream. That would explain all the rapid cuts, the computerized images, the plastic-looking vegetation all over Gatsby’s lawn and how, once empty of partygoers, Gatsby’s home feels more like a castle-sized playhouse than an actual building. The size and extravagance of the parties, though exhilarating in their own right, could also function as a sort of parodic hyperbole of Jazz Age hedonism.
As an intriguing blend of parody and glorification, Gatsby might have worked, but it tries instead to flesh out one of the great American tragedies within this shallow, stylized aesthetic framework. As a result, the utter seriousness of the film’s dramatic aspirations calls attention to the artificiality of the movie’s surface-level design. Even as the film powers onward thanks to the driving propulsion of its melodrama, we become increasingly aware of the airless quality to many of the scenes. In Fitzgerald’s novel, the lyrical language blends perfectly with the lavish excess which it describes and evokes. Here, the same words tend to fall flat, unable to integrate themselves organically into a world where virtually nothing is organic.
Parties aside, if there’s one thing that saves Gatsby, it’s the performances. They are spot-on incarnations of their literary counterparts and offer exactly what the rest of the film lacks: surfaces that reflect humanity in all its passions and shortcomings. As narrator Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire sports exactly the right detached attitude that allows us to both identify with him and wonder at his motives. Joel Edgerton, in both physique and performance, fills the role of Tom Buchanan with barely contained aggression, while Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan Baker is arch and stunning, a cool beauty with Rooney Mara eyes attentive to the whispers of scandal. Fittingly Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio brings the winning charm we’ve come to miss about him along with his familiar intensity, effective for conveying a celebrity character with a haunted past. But best of all is Carey Mulligan’s Daisy, whose china-doll effervescence and lilting voice serve as lovely veneers to mask her fragile heart.
Of course, the film doesn’t let us fully appreciate these performances because it is so keen on delivering over-the-top visual spectacle. But at least we’re able to hold on to these flawed, fascinating people amid all the cinematic pandemonium. That’s what makes Gatsby tolerable, even good at times. It throws us moments of brilliance that anchor our interest even as the rest of the film breaks into driftwood atop its own stormy seas. The vast parties, the seductive soundtrack, the vibrant characters and the actors who play them – all point to a better movie hiding somewhere within this Gatsby. With more care and effort, these same ingredients could have produced a masterpiece.
Really, though, Fitzgerald’s story of the phantom American ideal has become a sort of ideal itself, so precious is it to the canon of defining, American cultural icons. A by-the-books adaptation would’ve been doomed to fail. What Luhrmann’s Gatsby does right is try to refurbish the story with a new kind of vitality that will be seen less as a cinematic version of the novel so much as an extension of it. And even though the film falls far short of its vision due to unwieldy filmmaking, the dream itself, as Fitzgerald writes of Gatsby’s own, is incorruptible.