You know, I haven’t engaged with the plot of “The Great Gatsby” in several years- the last time I read it I was a freshman in college, an adult in only the technical, legal sense. A significant point of the book was lost on me then, but which I’ve been ruminating on ever since I saw Baz Luhrmann’s much-awaited adaptation:
Gatsby is kind of a stalker.
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
I don’t know why this had never occurred to me as a problematic plot point before- the fact that we are asked to align ourselves with a half-mad recluse who committed himself to criminal activity and based all of his life decisions around possessing a married woman he’d had a fling with five years ago. The fact that Daisy kind of wants him back, and that Tom is a philandering, racist oaf is kind of beside the point when you think about it.
But enough- that’s an academic digression, not a review. On to the review!
This movie is terrible.
That’s not fair. Specific parts of this movie are wonderful. Luhrmann, by now famously, stocked his characteristically lush film with hip-hop updates of old jazz-age songs and the result really is arresting. The party scenes are marvelous as well, because let’s face it, if the director of “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet” can’t do a good party scene than none of us can. The colors are spiked with neon and chrome while still maintaining some of the period verisimilitude, the costumes are gorgeous, and the heat of the New York summer in which our story takes place is palpable.
But the worst thing I can say about “Gatsby” is that at many points it seems not as much as serious movie, but rather a high school sophomore’s very serious book report. Really, do we need to be belabored with the idea that Dr. Eckleburg’s sign represents the uncaring eyes of God? Do we need to remember the significance of Daisy’s leash-like string of pearls?
There are some symbols that work, mainly among them the astonishing, breathing organism that is Gatsby’s nouveau riche home. But the visuals are distracted by the chatter of Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) voiceover, which is constant, unending, and often unnecessary- it’s like Luhrmann’s making a thesis statement and then backing it up with cited quotations of the book that literally appear on screen.
On and on, the film lurches from sublime to ridiculous, mainly because Luhrmann’s direction keeps butting up against Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan’s truly marvelous and surprisingly subtle acting. Whatever lofty ideas we have about Gatsby being a stand-in for Jazz Age excess, or for the death of the American Dream, DiCaprio cuts to the center: Jay Gatsby is simply a very lonely man. His longing is not just for Daisy but for Nick’s company and friendship, and his terrible crime is trying to build himself a family (albeit in a super creepy stalker-ish way). Mulligan has a harder time, mainly because Daisy Buchanan is famously one of the most opaque characters in literature. But she plays her opacity as not a lack of thought or feeling or emotional intelligence but as the result of a violent exorcism of that intelligence. Daisy wants to keep on living as if she’s still a carefree 19-year-old, and to do that there is a lot one has to ignore.
The role of Nick Carraway is often more of a thankless chore- our narrator and stand-in viewer is never as dynamic as anyone else in the room- and Maguire does a solid if unremarkable job. Joel Edgerton plays a straightforward Tom Buchanan- though he sparkles briefly and wrenchingly in the moment when he asks Daisy if she didn’t love him “when I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry.”
But whatever terrific acting they are able to do is drowned in the tsunami of Baz Luhrmann’s ideas. Want constant shots of the green light at Daisy’s dock? Want some voiceover explaining what you’re seeing? And the words the voiceover is saying plastered across the screen? Want a slow-motion shot of poor stupid Myrtle colliding with the car? You got it! And did we mention that the Dr. Eckleburg sign is watching it all happen, like an ambivalent deity?
I had been hoping that Luhrmann’s sense of momentum and dynamism would have been good for the movie, but in the end it somehow made everything more affected and stodgy. By the time the credits roll, one is exhausted, as if we’ve been to our own Gatsby party. But sadly, we can’t remember the fun we had; only the hangover it’s left us with.