As soon as I found out that Baz Luhrmann was making an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I was horrified. I doubted immensely that he could handle the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s storytelling or even begin to glean any of the meaning in the material. But I held out a glimmer of hope that it wouldn’t be a total hate-fuck. I could see a way that he might possibly have been able to do it right, and I resolved to give him a chance.
Five minutes in, I was annoyed. Ten minutes in, I took out my cell phone to check if there was a showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness about to start in one of the theaters down the hallway. Left up to me, I would have walked, but my husband talked me down, saying, “We’ve paid for this abortion, we might as well go through with it.” Sometimes hate is a road that must be traveled to the end.
After a stunning opening credits sequence, the film opens with a “crane” shot (most of the exterior shots are CGI) zooming down to the vast green lawns and gates of a sanitarium. It turns out that Nick Carraway has been committed for treatment of alcoholism, among other things, and the narration unfolds as he relates the story of his time with Gatsby to his analyst, who eventually convinces him to write it all out. Right out of the gate, I hate this need to couch the narration in a “real” setting. I think it would have worked just fine to have the voice of “Older Nick” telling the story to the audience without any explanation or background. Or, if that was unacceptable for some reason, it would be very easy to tell this story without using Nick Carraway’s narration at all. In many places, doing so would have made the film more powerful by forcing Luhrmann to allow things to happen off camera. Instead, he leans on the same storytelling cliché he used in Moulin Rouge: the writer recalls the events of the film as he dedicates them to paper. It’s lazy and trite and it represents a lame attempt on the director’s part to pay homage to the fact that the source material for the film is one of the greatest books ever written without actually paying homage to the book.
In fact, every time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words are repeated and the text splashes across the screen, the film looks worse by comparison. Each quote bears a reminder of just how much Baz Luhrmann does not understand The Great Gatsby.
The characters have no depth; no subtlety. They are macquettes in a stilted melodrama that very deftly apes its source material in plot and scenery but utterly loses the message in a flurry of glitter and Möet and booty dancers. DiCaprio acts well, in spite of the horrible direction, as does Joel Edgerton. But Toby Maguire feels like the star of a small-town community theater, all folksy and stilted. And if Carey Mulligan and Elizabeth Debicki do a fine job conveying the alternately sad and frantic vacuity Fitzgerald goes to so much trouble illustrating in the book, well, it’s lost among an ocean of meaningless and empty characterizations.
The sets are gorgeous, and with the exception of some very obvious anachronism, so are the props and costumes. The 3D is utilized very deftly to show off the eye candy, and there is a lot of eye candy. But the music is awful. As the first party sequence unfolded, I thought I was watching a hip-hop video on MTV. And then there was that strangeness with the people partying in the car on the highway where, again, the film inexplicably becomes a rap video; thick, scantily clad dancers and all. (This made more sense as the end credits rolled and I saw that Jay-z produced it.) Just, why? Really? I’m out of touch with mainstream culture – I’ll readily cop to that, but I’m not some kind of puritanical, high-brow white bread asshole who hates fun. But there is no reason to turn The Great Gatsby into an overblown, sexed-up, postmodern gangsta flick with giant ribbon confetti and disco balls.
Well, no reason that doesn’t involve a completely crass, money-grubbing, marketing-over-content attitude. I have this image in my mind of Jay-z and Baz, sitting at opposite ends of a long table in a trendy yet minimalist office in the upper floors of a skyscraper somewhere, drinking fancy bottled water and rubbing their hands together villainously as they strategize on just how they are going to turn a great American novel into a cash cow. (There is another, obscener image that kept flashing through my mind as I watched this horror show: Baz Luhrmann with literal hams for hands, frantically fucking a copy of the book through a hole in one of those iconic disembodied eyes on the cover.)
Why not play it straight? Why not use period music? The scene with the organ was kind of cool. It would not have been hard to convey the same kind of party atmosphere without resorting to rough, modern clichés as shorthand. But then again, where would Baz Luhrmann be without shorthand? He takes all the emotional subtlety out of the text and turns it into overemphasized physical display – especially in the way the characters express emotion. All the repression and sublimation is gone, clumsily transposed into oversimplified theater-mask play-acting. It makes most of the human interactions in the film completely unbelievable.
Perhaps Luhrmann’s worst crime is in his attempt to reframe The Great Gatsby as a tragic love story. Yes, the plot of the book contains several overlapping romantic entanglements, but it is most decidedly not a love story. It is a story about deeply broken people doing terrible things to each other, out of carelessness and out of obsessive and naïve attempts to recreate the past with no regard for the agency of the other people whom they would have fill roles in those recreations. Even though the film closes with two quotes from the book that illustrate just that, it fails to show any of it.
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow, we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Daisy and Gatsby aren’t in love with each other. They love the idea of each other. Daisy craves escape from her shallow existence as the trophy wife of a wealthy boor, and Gatsby represents mystery and romance. Gatsby, still running from the poverty of his youth, wants a beautiful companion to reflect his beautiful conception of himself as “a son of God”, and Daisy, with her “voice full of money”, has become to him the human embodiment of wealth. Neither sees the other as a fully realized human being. Each views the other as an object in their own Life Plan, and when the details of those plans unfold and conflict, it all falls apart.
Just as this doomed entanglement is painted as glorified romance, everything in the film is painted with a glamorous gloss. In the book, the party in Tom and Myrtle’s New York City apartment is a nightmarish commentary on working-class pretenders to riches that ends in a bloody mess after Tom purposefully breaks Myrtle’s nose. (I just reread it again, and it is easily as horrifying (and entertaining) as Hunter S. Thompson’s account in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of the seeming transformation of bar patrons into grotesque lizard people. I really think it comes from the same place.) In the film, it becomes a casual gathering of slightly bohemian revelers who drink and take drugs and engage in various debaucheries until Tom slaps Myrtle in the face. Most of the dialogue is removed or recontextualized in such a way that takes all the bite out of it.
Even the climactic scene where Myrtle gets run over gets sanitized. The whole point of that scene is to show the brutal reality of consequence. It’s the dark side of the opulence and carelessness, thrown in the reader’s face like a suckerpunch. And Baz turns it into a pretty tragedy.
…its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust.
Michaelis and this man reached her first, but when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for her heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.
It’s ugly. It’s not a beautiful body flying gracefully through the air and going to death in slow motion with all its romantic baggage intact. It’s real, and it’s brutal. The woman is unsexed. She is reduced to a pile of blood and meat. I knew going into the film that Luhrmann’s handling of this scene would be the crux of the film for me. I can’t say I was surprised, but I was still disappointed.
The turd on top of this shit cake was the closing shot of Carraway’s typed manuscript, titled, simply, GATSBY – and then a pen-wielding hand enters the frame and scrawls “THE GREAT” above it. As the MST3K guys would say, “WE HAVE A TITLE!”
Baz Luhrmann, please do the world a favor: buy a deli slicer and put those hands to good use. I bet you could make enough ham sandwiches to feed a lot of starving children.