Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is a gorgeous but ultimately disappointing adaptation which excessively tries hard to grip the spirit of one of the great American literature works. Watching it was not a bad experience, but my interest was quickly dissipated in spite of its interesting attempt to present the story in an unlikely style, and I gradually got lost amid its excessive party while not understanding or caring about its characters much.
The movie glitters more than it is suggested in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel, and you will not be disappointed at least during its first act. Driven by the director Baz Luhrmann’s typical hyperbolic approach, the movie promptly thrusts us into that swinging Jazz era in New York during the 1920s, and we are served with several big, glossy night parties full of impressive sets, beautiful costumes, and colorful confetti to dazzle our eyes.
These sights are accompanied with not only those jazzy period songs but also the modern songs which feel certainly out of place. It is surely anachronistic, but what do you expect from the director of “Romeo + Juliet”(1996) and “Moulin Rouge!”(2001)? In his heavily stylized world, George Gershwin can go hand in hand with Shawn ‘Jaz Z’ Carter on the soundtrack, and we see lots of extras feverishly dancing the Charleston under the mood of the 21th century nightclub.
This looks amusing at first, but, alas, in spite of all wealth and glamour it can present on the screen, the movie fails to evoke that elusive quality inside the concise elegance of Fitzgerald’s prose. Like the 1974 film directed by Jack Clayton, it faithfully follows the plot of the novel, but, again, it only shows us that the power of Fitzgerald’s novel does not come from the story itself but from how to reminisce and tell its story through the fascination and disillusionment with the people and their life style observed by its detached but wistful narrator. It is no wonder that some of my South Korean acquaintances were not so enthusiastic about the novel after reading its badly translated versions and asked me why the hell the novel is regarded by many as a masterpiece.
The movie tries to capture the mood and feel of the novel through its rather awkward and distracting storytelling device. As many of you know, the story is told through Nick Carraway(Tobey Maguire) in the novel, and we see Carraway as a patient convalescing in some sanatorium at the beginning of the movie. As a ‘morbidly alcoholic’ guy suffering from the depression, he starts to write about that as a way of curing and redeeming himself thanks to his kind psychiatrist’s advice, and we sometimes see the paragraphs from the book being written or typed by him on the screen.
Because many of you must be pretty familiar with the plot, I describe it as briefly as possible. As a young Yale graduate hopeful about his future as a successful New York bond salesman, Carraway comes to reside in one small Long Island village named West Egg. While getting acquainted again with his rich classmate Tom Buchanan(Joel Edgerton) who lives in East Egg, he is pleased to meet his distant cousin and Tom’s wife Daisy(Carey Mulligan), and Tom and Daisy introduce him to a socialite Jordan Baker(Elizabeth Debicki), a well-known professional golfer who seems to be attracted to Carraway behind her aloof attitude.
During their lunch conversation, Carraway’s mysterious neighbour Jay Gatsby is mentioned. Carraway becomes more curious about him, and, not long after that, he comes to know a lot more about Gatsby, who has been secretly yearning for Daisy while holding big, decadent party every Saturday night at his grand manor just for impressing her with his wealth and winning her back with his love.
In case of presenting Gatsby’s first full appearance, the movie does not disappoint us. As its extravaganza flowing with colors and sounds approaches to the peak along with the firework and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Carraway finally meets Gatsby, whose disguised confidence and casual charm are well conveyed through a nice performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. He may not be what he claims to be, but he is willing to be at your service, and you won’t mind him at all as long as the glasses of champagne or martini are served to you along with dance and music for all night long.
While trying a little too hard to impress a no-nonsense guy like Carraway, Gatsby manages to have Carraway on his side. At Gatsby’s request, Carraway invites Daisy to his house, and Gatsby tries too hard again when preparing a meeting he has desired for. He turns Carraway’s humble house literally into an expensive botanical garden, and he gets increasingly fidgety while waiting for his girl to come.
We are supposed to identify with Gatsby’s anxiety at this point, but, unfortunately, it feels more like an unintentional comedy to me. DiCaprio does look as serious as required, but his speech and movement feel stiff and mannered at times, and I heard several audiences around me giggling around the point when Daisy arrives to meet Gatsby. We are supposed to be happy and moved to see Gatsby finally facing a girl he has always loved since he met her several years ago, but the movie only distances itself from them just like Carraway, who steps away from them for leaving them alone to their private moment.
I think the main problem lies in the misguided direction/interpretation of the story. Fitzgerald’s novel may look like a tragic love story between Gatsby and Daisy on the surface, but it is essentially a cautionary tale about American Dream. Determined to have Daisy back, Gatsby has done everything he can do for becoming rich enough to climb up social ladder, but, in spite of his shady side, he remains fatally optimistic and innocent compared to the rich and rotten people like Tom and Daisy. His illusion is quickly crumbled in front of them because, unlike him, Tom and Daisy have real power and real background. As a couple who deserves to labeled as 1% people, they can break things and then can get away with it and move on as if nothing had happened.
Unlike his previous work “Moulin Rouge!”, which pulled out genuine feelings from its unrealistic background and equally unrealistic archetypes, Baz Luhrmann’s artificial melodramatic approach does not match well with the story here. The thin characterization in his adapted screenplay written by him and co-adapter Craig Pearce becomes more problematic as its second act is bogged down while burdened with heaps of production design and costumes, and, as a consequence, we are more emotionally alienated from the story and the characters as the running time goes by. When Carraway says to Gatsby “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” around the finale, this crucial line seriously lacks that poignant emotional impact I felt while reading the book.
The actors cannot be blamed for this problem, for they adequately fill their roles as much as they can. Leonardo DiCaprio is definitely better than Robert Redford in the 1974 film because he looks less assured and more vulnerable than Redford, and Carey Mulligan is certainly less whining and more charming than Redford’s equally miscast co-star Mia Farrow. Too bad there is not much palpable feeling generated between these two good-looking and talented performers; we see them looking at each other, and that is all to be seen for us.
Tobey Maguire is as neutral as he is supposed to be as a passive but observant narrator, and Elizabeth Debicki looks splendid in her thankless role, and Joel Edgerton gives the most effective performance in the film. He is a despicable bully for many reasons, but at least we always know where his rotten heart is whenever we sees him. Amitabh Bachchan is not bad as Gatsby’s suspicious associate Meyer Wolfsheim in his cameo appearance, but, as a Jewish character, he feels as strained as Alec Guinness in “A Passage to India”(1984).
The movie is not a total waste. It does not waste any cent of its budget on how it should look. As I said before, you will be impressed by those glamorous sights in the film, and I sort of appreciated the efforts put behind the contrastingly bleak landscape of “the Valley of Ashes” where Tom’s mistress Myrtle(Isla Fisher) and her dim husband George B. Wilson(Jason Clarke) and other poor people lead their depressing lives. I understand that the movie does not intend to look realistic, but, seriously, are they living in, say, Mordor?
While it looks gorgeous, the movie forgets how it should feel. It is nice to hear that immortal last paragraph of Fitzgerald’s novel being quoted in the end, but this only confirms my opinion that the novel will never be successfully adapted into movie. Almost everything from the book including that elusive green light are all vividly presented in front of us, but the movie ends up only scratching the surface as struggling to reach out for its green light, and we are left with little to reflect on. So we beat on, audiences against the trend, borne back ceaselessly toward the book.