Part way through Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the title character has ostentatiously orchestrated his reunion with lost love Daisy at neighbor Nick’s cottage. Gatsby brings over gardening and catering crews to ready the place, then fills the tiny cottage floor to ceiling with flowers. “Do you think it’s too much?” Gatsby asks. “I think it’s what you want,” Nick replies.
I’ve no idea if the director considered the lines a self-deprecating in-joke, but it certainly sums up Luhrmann’s all-amps-on-ten approach to filmmaking. And while the director certainly Luhrmannated his source material, neither his over-the-top style nor changes to the text are what leaves one feeling disappointed. No, all the pyrotechnics are fine, it’s the wooden storytelling that had me checking my watch just as the film was reaching its final act. “The Great Gatsby” is long and slow and Luhrmann manages to sap all the drama from the characters and story just when it should all be racing towards its tragic climax.
I haven’t seen too many movies on opening day, and certainly none at 10:30 AM, but I was eager to see the film and share my impressions. Also, the story has been kind of a recurring motif throughout my life. In high school we held a Gatsby party in English class after finishing the book, and I was chosen to portray Tom Buchanan. Not because my classmates thought I had anything in common with the Old Money jerk, I assume, but more likely because I was too popular to play Wilson but not popular enough for Jay or Nick. Tom would resurface once again when Ralph Lauren Magazine asked me to write a feature on Tommy Hitchcock, Jr., Fitzgerald’s model for Tom. And the motif continues. I fell in love for the first time at the San Francisco Bay Area’s famous annual “Gatsby Summer Afternoon,” a spectacular event and a pretty damn romantic place for first love. I’ve read the book a number of times, most recently last summer, and enjoyed it more with each reading. And the 1974 Robert Redford version, as Wolfsheim says of Gatsby, is certainly “handsome to look at,” and I’ve watched it many times.
The familiarity many of us have with the previous version, as well as dialogue direct from the book, haunts Luhrmann’s adaptation, as we can’t help but hear the lines spoken differently, either in our own imaginative voices or those of the 1974 cast. There wasn’t a single line I thought more poignantly delivered by the current cast. Most were grating.
If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and accept the changes in the story, the film starts out just fine. Much of the changes are to the Nick Carraway character, and I thought the differences from the novel more intriguing than the performance of Toby Maguire, whom I find miscast. Leonard DiCaprio’s long-delayed first appearance on the screen is fantastically fun, and he seems to do the best he can with the role, but ultimately the director is responsible, and Luhrmann clearly has more on his mind than drawing Oscar-winning performances from his actors.
“The Great Gatsby” is certainly eye candy. Gatsby’s house now looks like a castle, and is surrounded by a kind of fairy-tale forest. Sartorially the film is flat, whereas I always enjoy looking at the clothes in the ’74 version. Gatsby’s parties are filmed like music videos, and all of the spontaneity and sense of genuine revelry is lost. The ’74 version makes you gawk in amazement at how they partied during the Roaring Twenties, and laugh when the partygoers start jumping in the pool in evening dress. Luhrmann’s parties are as artificial as can be, and the pool dives just an empty gesture for effect.
Period music, though used sparingly, is used well, making you wonder why Luhrmann felt he needed the contemporary music, the movie’s most annoying quality for me, but perhaps less so for those who like that sort of music.
I chose the humorous graphic above because in addition to the camped-up filmmaking style, Lurhmann’s script feels packed with Cliffs Notes. The novel’s metaphoric devices — the green light, Dr. Eckleberg’s watching eyes — are literalized and stiffly explicated, as is the clash between Old Money and the nouveau riche. This isn’t a filmmaker who challenges you to figure things out. Meanwhile, the novel’s deeper themes about American culture are totally lost amid the hyped-up love story.
Gatsby’s unbelievable fidelity (he even has the motto “ever faithful” in Latin above his castle gate) will surely fuel the dreams young female moviegoers, many of which were in the theater with me. And, as in the book, Nick remarks on Gatsby’s tremendous capacity for hope.
Once this project was announced, it would have been naive of us to have hoped for anything but a Baz Luhrmann film. And on that he has completely delivered. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD