YSP Film: Gatsby Revisited – A Film Review of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”

Luhrmann’s film dazzles, but does it delight? Read on to find out.

IMG_00000411Perhaps the truest line in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is uttered by the hapless narrator: “You can’t repeat the past”; and perhaps Director Baz Luhrmann was influenced only by Jay Gatsby’s reply: “Of course you can, old sport”.

I read a review before watching the movie–a few in fact–though I knew full well what to expect: “The book was better” they would all cry in unison with their shrill nostalgic warbles. While that might be true in some instances, it certainly doesn’t allow book-based movies room to breathe and grow on their own. The issue with The Great Gatbsy is that Luhrmann deliberately plants his film in the shadow of Fitzgerald’s most heralded work and thus, the film never truly sees the sun. While the film successfully explores Fitzgerald’s themes of love, loss, capitalism and stasis, and does great service to the aggrandized culture depicted therein, The Great Gatsby strives to recreate the charm of the original novel, an impossible feat with a dubious end result.

Jay Gatsby’s character was perfectly cast—a strong start if Luhrmann intends to remain faithful to Fitzgerald’s vision. DiCaprio accurately portrays a new-money stud whose delicately sculpted façade fits like a glove, though that glove might be one size larger than necessary; his “old sport” routine feels natural, in the sense that it isn’t natural at all. Rather, like his sense of style, Gatsby adopts his mannerisms from his mentor Dan Cody to suit his farmer-turned-gentleman identity.

While Leo’s delivery is excellent, Daisy’s character seems listless—almost vapid. When reading I found Daisy’s character reminiscent of Lady Brett Ashley of The Sun Also Rises. Her character should be jovial, slightly naïve, with a voice that “jingles like money” (a line curiously dropped from the movie script). Instead, her gold-plated speech is confused with vacuity, and carries a more dreamlike quality (a la Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films). Adopting the role of the Shakespearean fool, Daisy’s character claims some of the most profound lines in the text and the film. Perhaps her portrayal in the Gatsby film is meant to intensify this irony, but her symbolic nature seems lost, and her ignorance irritates rather than stimulates.

The soundtrack is perhaps my biggest caveat with the film. I’m not sure who was on which side of the deal, but the film is overlain almost exclusively with music from Roc-A-Fella Records. The Jay-Z/Kanye West duo’s driving, heavy beats are years removed from the time period depicted, and the ambiance they provide is similarly inappropriate.

A good book retains relevance long after going to press, long after first release, and of course, long after the author’s death. It could be argued that a more modern soundtrack draws a modern crowd, and that the “money, cash, girls” thread that pulls most rap songs together accentuates the frugality and superficiality of the roaring twenties. However, following Nick Carraway’s typewritten introduction to the film, Jay-Z’s drug-dealer bravado seems inappropriate, even though Gatsby’s own character is marred by rumours of drug-addled corruption and bootlegging. Moreover, I highly doubt Gatsby would refer to himself as a “big homie” during his rendezvous with Daisy; despite “Crazy in Love” being a cover version, the feel of the song seems like a slap in the face to a character that strives for wealth, fame, and power all for the sake of one woman. It is wholly understating Gatsby’s devotion to say that Daisy’s “touch got [him] looking so crazy right now”.

Don’t be mistaken, Luhrmann’s film adaptation does hit a few solid notes, in particular the hyberbolic affluence of New York in the 1920’s. There is a near parodic sense of opulence presented in Gatsby; with its bright, super-saturated colours, the movie comes directly from fantasy, or – in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s case – a nightmare. That is not to say the film fails in this aspect—in fact it’s quite the opposite. The film accurately portrays Fitzgerald’s disillusionment with the twenties; Gatsby, but especially Tom, Daisy, and Jordan comprise an alien group of monetary success that Fitzgerald both struggled against and strove for during much of his writing career.

Luhrmann’s liberty with Carraway’s character (he’s a sanitarium patient in the film) accentuates the Author’s alienation. As probably the only deviation from the original that the director makes, it’s a successful one. That being said, in a meta-textual way, it really is not a deviation at all, but a conduit through which the director pays homage to the writer. In accordance with the entirety of the film, Luhrmann seems tentative to take any real artistic liberties, which leads to many of the film’s shortcomings.

In the end, Luhrmann’s vision seems at odds with itself. While on one hand he truly nails the sensational, he misses out on much of the nuance that comes with a great novel like Fitzgerald’s. Gatsby’s character specifically is often depicted more directly as sinister in the film than in the novel. Where in the novel a twitch of the lip described in Fitzgerald’s gorgeous prose hints at something larger, the movie blows windows open with crashes of thunder—at one point “Klipspringer” even chimes in with the bassy organ music of bad horror movies–to ensure that we don’t miss the underlying discord DiCaprio’s character is dealing with.

Moreover, much of the symbolic significance is lost, absorbed by the grandiose nature of Luhrmann’s film-making. DiCaprio’s “old sports” lose their authenticity after the first 50 or so, and his bright yellow roadster cuts through the ash-heap wasteland with all the symbolic subtlety of a brick through a window. Moreover, Dr. T.J. Eckleberg’s omnipresence loses much of its effect with each subsequent appearance—it feels as though for each appearance in the novel, the film billboard flashes on screen, pans in, or is altogether forced down your throat three or four times.

While some of the emotional gravity of Gatsby (the novel) is lost, certain scenes actually benefit from the added viscera of film. Wilson’s final exchange with Tom I found particularly poignant, to the point where I almost felt ill (in the best way possible), as the apparent rift between rich and poor crystallizes in carelessness, betrayal, and death. That being said, it’s not enough to redeem the film.

I hate to dismiss a movie for not escaping the shadow of a canonical novel like The Great Gatsby, but Baz Luhrmann attempts to remain so true to Fitzgerald’s creation that it’s difficult not to be disappointed. If you haven’t yet read Gatsby, by all means watch it. If you’ve read the novel though, I think you’ll find that like Jay Gatsby himself, this film is left helplessly beating against the current.

–M.G.

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