Ever since reading “The Great Gatsby” and viewing its multiple film adaptations I’ve wondered if the book could ever be filmed. There have been a couple Gatsbys already, Alan Ladd and Robert Redford, and neither of them got anywhere close to a living portrayal of the book's mysterious, titular character. Yet, it isn’t the story or even the fact that Gatsby exists mostly as a creation of the book’s narrator that makes “The Great Gatsby,” in my mind, unfilmable.
No, I believe the book exists alongside a literary great like “The Catcher in the Rye” as unfilmable because the machinations of its story aren’t really what made audiences fall in love with it in the first place. Instead it is the wonderful poetry and lyricism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing that serves as “The Great Gatsby”’s lasting appeal, a particular brand of writing and viewpoint that is unique to the written word. How do you replicate something like:
“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 — to-morrow 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.”
There are few films whose images evoke a response that can come close to proving that this kind of transcendental expression can be one expressed by filmmakers. I would be quick to place a film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life right alongside “The Great Gatsby” in terms of artistry. However, that doesn’t mean that an adaptation of The Tree of Life would make for a great book. By all accounts, it’d be terrible.
In some ways, I think Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby tries too hard to remain faithful to the novel, even depicting type-written passages of it onscreen, but without the confidence that made Fitzgerald’s book so bold and beautiful. Fitzgerald’s writing conveyed so much with so little and here Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) piles on the detail in an almost deafening display.
Early parties scenes fill the screen with an impressive array of costumery and digital effects that resemble an orgy of Lisa Frank stickers. Luhrmann’s camera rockets around the explosive scenes like a rollercoaster with a seemingly senseless array of edits. These scenes are unfocused and narratively pointless, as the visuals don’t reveal anything or highlight any of the partygoers. Instead I felt full-on nausea and disorientation, at a time when I so desperately wanted to orient myself within the narrative.
However, there comes a moment in the film, after I was shaken senseless, where Luhrmann’s style abruptly changes and he reveals his greatest effect of them all, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby.
As the fireworks are exploding and “Rhapsody in Blue” is climaxing, Gatsby reveals himself for the first time to the audience and it is his, Leonardo DiCaprio’s, smile that eclipses all of the mania of his signature parties. In that smile is everything that makes up Gatsby; all of his naivety, showmanship, romanticism… And yet, Luhrmann feels the need to include Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) overbearing voiceover, often lifted straight from the book, to describe exactly what we are witnessing.
This isn’t enough to sink the performance of DiCaprio, whose performance outright saves the film and elevates his colleagues’ performances as well. When Gatsby is allowed to interact with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) in some of the quieter scenes, the film bursts into life and allows its incredibly talented actors to be untainted by Luhrmann’s overwhelming style.
Any second away from Leonardo’s Gatsby is a second I spent waiting for him to reappear onscreen. He plays the character with the perfect balance between joy and inexplicability, as if Gatsby has already peered into his own future. When Gatsby’s lies begin to unfold and his naïve romanticism comes crashing down around him, DiCaprio transforms into a horrifying and pathetic creature whose anguish seeps out of every pore. If DiCaprio didn’t already have several career-defining roles, this might be it.
While Luhrmann’s gaudy cinematic tricks and flair for inserting contemporary music into period films can often be distracting, I always found these choices interesting if not thematically vague. The problem is that they operate in sharp contrast to and are far less effective than The Great Gatsby’s smaller, more intimate scenes, some of which last over ten minutes. It is here the tension simmers, boils, and erupts into a chaotic ballet.
Early on Gatsby cries incredulously, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” and I certainly wish I could agree with him. Except this time I would urge Luhrmann to give up his tricks and make a smaller more intimate Gatsby. This The Great Gatsby is just like one of his parties: big, exorbitant, loud, gaudy, and a distraction. That’s too bad because there is also a great Gatsby lost in the crowd of people, yearning to be loved.
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