Pomp and Circumstance in Long Island
F. Scott Fitzgerald walked out of the theater when his timeless piece of American literature was adapted for the first time into a silent film in 1926. Now, nearly ninety years later, The Great Gatsby makes its fourth go around on the big screen and its most eager and fulfilling attempt to keep Mr. Fitzgerald in his seat were he still alive. Passing and exceeding the barriers of sound, color, and two-dimensional space, this film adaptation’s lavish grandiosity comes courtesy of modern fundamentalist of “pow” and pizzazz Baz Luhrmann, a dignitary artist whose cinematic brush applies broad, crisp strokes of grime and glitz. Here, his transformation of iconic written imagery is brassy and bold sometimes outclassing but wary to undermine the intricacies of Fitzgerald’s prose, expanding his adjectives while letting other verses speak for themselves.
It’s a somewhat humbled response for Luhrmann who took contemporary liberties with his first large-scale production Romeo + Juliet, supplying shotguns and urban chaos in Verona Beach Orange County. But it’s also a perfect opportunity for him to use his colorful palette, construct extravagant ensembles, and capture his destined era of filmmaking, a 1920s landscape of unending dancing, drinking, and partying. For a director whose primary cinematic iconography is Moulin Rouge!, the Jazz Age is both fitting and indulging to recreate a space, a time, so full of life and wealth, and simultaneously so close to the verge of collapse and catastrophe. It’s narrator Nick Carraway (played and voiced by Tobey Maguire) that bridles Luhrmann from exhibiting excessive excess and gives his vision a beautiful balance of words too descriptive, too sublime to forget or re-write.
The three-piece suits, sparkled headbands, and finely groomed hair fill the background of Carraway’s recollections of his time in West Egg, NY, the fictional town beneath the castled mansion of Jay Gatsby, his wealthy neighbor stuck in the past, in love. The way the film starts is uniquely conceived, a sanitarium housing a troubled Carraway well into the Depression and his personal misery, trapped in his glimmering past, the one he recalls through typing and reciting, a catharsis that merges into the 3D spectacular seven years before. The extra dimension does not have much pop or immersion, making its presence felt only in confetti rain and in the camera’s swooping and speeding plunges from tops of skyscrapers. Without the depth or artistry it seems inspired by Hugo’s soaring spectacle, layering and overlapping scenes for an atmospheric presence. For its grand and recurring thematic of Gatsby reaching out towards the green light, his elusive reality, paradoxically, and maybe mistakenly, Luhrmann’s three dimensions lack that same illusion for his audience.
But such is the difficulty in bringing what many will call a canonical piece of American literature to the screen. There is plenty to chew on here besides the fact that liberties are taken in respect to minor characters (Meyer Wolfsheim is not a Jew, but played by Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan) and the anachronisms that fill the soundtrack produced by Jay-Z. What the film may struggle with in its substance should be a small factor amidst the roar of the roaring 20s. The Great Gatsby, above all else, is about feeling, about riding the exuberant roller-coaster of wealth and bright lights, and doing so in what Nick Carraway call’s Gatsby’s mansion, an “amusement park.” Gatsby’s wood panels may not have reverberated from the overbearing bass of techno and hip-hop, but they promote the same current of intensity and fervor that billowed throughout his halls and the city’s underground speakeasies long before. Gatsby drives Nick into town over the Queensborough Bridge and you can faintly hear Alicia Keys billowing “Newww Yooorrrkk,” recreating that sense of empowerment and wonder so contagious, proud, and like the lyrics, inspiring. Taking almost a quarter of the film to appear, Mr. Gatsby is at first as elusive and dreamlike as are his visions of the past. He is played by Mr. Hollywood Leonardo DiCaprio, and sometimes he and his character are indecipherable. His introduction to the film is nothing short of cinematic gold and indulgence, a symmetrical close-up of the wealthy, tanned, golden-locked playboy who gives a hallmark sealed smirk and smile amidst a backdrop of flanking, fizzling fireworks. Luhrmann summons movies past with this iconic character, an immense home and egoistic spoken delivery mimicking Charles Foster Kane and adding “old sport”; later, an identical underwater shot invoking Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Fortunately, Nick was not there to tell Luhrmann that “he can’t repeat the past.”
Gatsby would imply however that his arrogance is merely confidence, his self-made wealth and parties gestures of generosity, and to Nick, he is his most conceited. But DiCaprio’s angular face is just a mask hiding a sensitively determined love for the iconic ditzy girl Daisy (Carrie Mulligan), separated for five years and now neighbors across the bay. His slow retrieval of their gap apart displays his false vibrato, but DiCaprio, who has now become a staple actor trying to recover lost love (Inception, Titanic, Romeo+Juliet, to name a few) slides into his familiar melodrama with an ease and charm even at his most visceral levels. Daisy has become his “Rosebud” and figment of his lucid imagination she proclaims is “perfect.” She is the green light piercing through the fog of memory and Luhrmann hammers this imagery home.
Mulligan is a bit more stoic than Mia Farrow’s 1975 interpretation, but much more engaging as a character. The same can be said for Elizabeth Debicki who plays Jordan Baker, Daisy’s golfing best friend who has transformed into the idyllic flapper model. Her presence as Nick’s girlfriend doesn’t seep into the story even as much as the affair between Daisy’s husband Tom (played boisterously by Joel Edgerton) and Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of garage worker George Wilson (Jason Clarke) that takes its fatal spiral downward. The fact that Luhrmann has corralled mostly Australians for the pure American novel doesn’t register in the glaring miscasting way you’d think it would.
But I will not criticize a director who establishes a style, a perspective, and subsequently implements it throughout. Gatsby and Daisy’s scenes together are less effusive and dry, maybe a product of bland underwritten parts, or possibly an intentional opaqueness, consistent with Nick’s lingering on the periphery of the relationship- fueled mostly by vocals of Lana Del Ray and romantic visions of pre-war love. It’s here the film dips away from its feeling and tries to fabricate one instead. It thrives much better in its Manhattan environments where the streets are alive, the lights are brighter, and the senses heightened, like when Tom and Nick visit Myrtle and her friends in a flowery-laced apartment building. Sex and champagne fill the air and on a weekday afternoon a small room becomes a brothel, ripe with carelessness, articulated outdoors by an unconfined fire escape trumpeter.
It’s at that moment when Nick Carraway feels both within and without at the same time, reveling in momentary hedonism, finding its yellow glow despicable. And it’s the way I surmise you will feel after experiencing this adaptation, “simultaneously enchanted and repelled” by Luhrmann’s “inexhaustible variety of life.” Both might not have it any other way.