Okay, so here’s the good news: Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is not an embarrassment to F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is a great looking, well-acted visualization of a story that generations have been forced to read in high school, yet it is never boring nor does it ever feel like homework. The bad news is that Luhrmann can’t find a tone to get to the heart of the story – he mixes an odd combination of modern musical elements and tragedy, and misses the subtleties that made the story work.
“The Great Gatsby” is, in essence, a tragic love story. It is told from the point of view of a man who stands at the sidelines, Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire), a writer who staying in a sanitarium who tells his story to a doctor who suggests that his patient put his story down on paper (no points for guessing what his memoirs will become). Nick takes us back several years, back to 1922, just after The Great War, when he was living in a small house in West Egg, New York. Next door is a sprawling manor from which come raucous parties with hundreds of guests – bands play, liquor flows, and every sort of taboo is broken.
The host is a man so mythical that most of his party guests have never even seen him. He is Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), an eccentric millionaire so indulgent that he has his name embossed on his marble floor and his furniture. He’s a dapper sort who seems to know more than he’s telling, and he puncuates nearly every sentence with the words “old sport.” Legend has it that he fixed the 1919 World Series.
Gatsby is a mystery, a man who reminds us a little of Charles Foster Kane. The difference is that that Gatsby’s Xanadu is filled nightly with hundreds happy party-goers instead of a lot of lonely, empty space. Gatsby’s Rosebud isn’t stuffed in a dusty basement, rather it remains in the deep chasms of his wounded soul. The first object of his heart is Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the woman who became the great love of his life before fate and circumstance pulled them apart. What’s keeping these two apart won’t be spoiled here for anyone who hasn’t read the book. All that can be said is that we want them to be together. That’s always the best indicator of a good love story.
There are two halves to this movie. One is a quiet love story, the other is the anything-goes hyper-activity of The Roaring Twenties. These two elements are set against one another and make for a very uneven mixture. At once, the movie pops and rattles with color and music (including hip hop), and then it quiets down into the tragedy of the love story. Just as we are getting our motor revved up from the music, we find that we have to down shift emotionally in order to get back to the slower tones of the romance.
Baz Luhrmann is a brilliant craftsman, but he mixes a strange cocktail. Fitzgerald’s book was about the dark labyrinth of Gatsby’s wounded heart, but the tone of this film suggests something that would be more at home in a lively musical. Too often, Luhrmann gives in to his flashy indulgences – if you’ve seen “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” or “Moulin Rouge,” then you kind already know what you’re getting here. There are lots of theatrics and music – some of which is so modern that it pulls us out of the moment – what decade is this? Those two elements don’t really work together. The parties at Gatsby’s house are more like a dance club than a free-flowing parade of humanity. Who are these guests? What drew them here? What do they know of their host? The first third of the film are loaded with wall-to-wall visuals that are painted and perfected to the point that we never feel as if we’re looking at the natural world. We are told that this is The Roaring Twenties, but the visual palette suggests merely an approximation of that era.
What does work are the performances especially by Leonard DiCaprio who keeps us at arm’s length from Jay Gatsby. This is the perfect approach to the character. He remains an enigma whose story unfolds slowly until we come to understand why he is the man that he is. When his beloved Daisy comes back into his life, we feel their bond. Carey Mulligan, one of the best actresses of her generation imbues Daisy, not with fragile weepiness, but with the heart of a woman whose life – she fears – has taken the wrong turn. It’s all there in her eyes.
“The Great Gatsby” is a film that is difficult to assess. The performances and the production design are so good that you forgive the uneven narrative. This adaptation is good, not great.