When you see a Baz Luhrmann film, you’re in for a spectacle. That’s for certain. If you’re heading to the theaters to see the Great Gatsby and expecting a period piece, some highly-accurate portrayal of the jazz age, you’re going to have a bad time. Same is true if you’re looking for some banal, overly-reverent adaptation of the book (*cough* Robert Redford *cough*). And I believe that’s why there are so many negative reviews flying around the internet.
Luhrmann is much more interested in the emotive side of any story than historical accuracy. His work is always garish, over the top, and filled with anachronistic pop culture references. He’s the Busby Berkeley of our generation. He wants to give you a show.
The beauty of Luhrmann’s movies though is the use of spectacle and melodrama to create something so over the top that it inevitably hits something real. He makes such fake worlds that the intensity of emotions held within the plot ring true. For this reason, you become so invested in the characters and their well-being, that you’re willing to suspend disbelief. His work has been described as a post-modern parody of a love story, layering cliché on top of cliché until it begins to resonate at its own frequency.
And this is all true for his interpretation of the Great Gatsby. The beginning of the movie blitzes you through his almost Fritz Langian cartoon of New York City in the 1920s. From the very beginning, the class differences are emphasized and exaggerated through the layout of the city and the burbs itself. The viewer is as overwhelmed as young Nick is as he whisked into high society and the high energy of the city. The homes of the rich are painted vibrantly and gorgeously, though with a stark difference in character between Tom Buchanan’s old money mansion and Jay Gatsby’s new money castle. Both gaudy, but in very different ways.
Then there are the party scenes. These are as historically accurate as the depictions of the cancan dances in Moulin Rouge. I found myself not greatly engaged in this aspect of the movie, but satsfied to see them included. These scenes are necessary for the story and to create the otherworldly atmosphere Luhrmann’s going for, but there’s so much unfocused energy, it’s hard to be engaged beyond thinking “this is a wild party.” Luhrmann pulls out all the stops with people, and costumes, and confetti. Really, it’s not a Luhrmann movie without a party.
As you are introduced to the characters, you can see how expertly cast the movie is, and this is where the movie begins to coalesce. Tobey Maguire, everyone’s favorite sexless movie star, is the obvious choice for the naïve outsider, Nick. Carey Mulligan carried the flightiness, charisma, and confused emotion of Daisy surprisingly well, while Joel Edgerton nailed Tom Buchanan’s gruff entitlement and imperial-style racism. Elizabeth Debicki does justice to the lithe and perfectly aloof ideal of the flapper that is Jordan Baker. Even the side characters like Mr. Wilson and Wolfsheim were the perfect caricatures they’re written to be. The real gem though was, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby. Could there be a better casting than Leo in that role? He mastered the learned gentlemanly manners of Gatsby, the affectation and charm. He also sold the naiveté and awkwardness of the real Gatsby under the veneer, the uncomfortableness whenever he is truly seen by anyone. Leo sells this movie, which he needs to. Without a strong Gatsby, the movie flops.
For this reason, I much preferred the second half of the film, which moves past the glitz and glam and focuses on the characters themselves and the story of the entrenched rich tromping over everyone else, destroying lives along the way. The plot becomes more loyal to Fitzgerald’s original work when it begins to matter. The intensity of emotion and drama builds masterfully as it heads to the exposure of Gatsby, because this is what Luhrmann does well. He knows how to build a story by the layering of emotion through plot. And he does so, not without humor. At the beginning of the big reveal scene, for example, where Gatsby tries to push Daisy to say she doesn’t love Tom, but Tom instead discredits Gatsby, the waiter is stabbing a block of ice with an ice pick. The violence of the movement and the tinny sound is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s shower screen. Drama so thick you could cut it with a knife.
He also keeps the class critiques fairly central. Some aspects of the critique are kept more subtle, especially for Luhrmann, but are still present. The old money-new money distinction between West Egg and East Egg for example, is really only hinted at by the houses themselves. Gatsby’s showiness and tackiness, however, is the perfect stereotype of the nouveau riche. And Tom Buchanan appropriately snubs his nose at this constantly. The contrasting world of the coal miners is central if outlandish, being one of the more major points of class clashing. While cartoonish, it serves its literary purpose of highlighting the other side of the tracks well enough.
There are also hints at racial critiques in the background that Luhrmann never fully develops. In multiple scenes there are exotified black dancers, and the majority of the waiters and servers are all black but it’s unclear how much of a statement Luhrmann is trying to make with that inclusion. It’s also unclear why he included a car full of wealthy black extras driven by a white chauffeur, for example, in 1920s New York. But there’s just enough racial hints to point toward Luhrmann purposefully pointing toward the racial tensions in the backdrop of the jazz age.
The biggest flaw in Luhrmann’s Gatsby, in m opinion, is the framing. The story begins with Nick in a sanitarium where a doctor suggests he write about the experiences that led him there. This is a completely unnecessary device. It adds nothing to the overall story, but instead actually undermines the strength of Nick’s character. He’s supposed to be the one non-delusional character you follow, the outsider whose stable perspective grants you access to the constructions of the self-serving. His disgust for New York and the rich at the end of the book does not suggest a lapse in his mental health.
This framing also overlaps too much with Moulin Rouge, making you believe at the beginning you’re in for the same ride. The broken, cynical writer is reflecting on when he was a young and naive writer moving to the up-and-coming center of culture. He’s introduced to alcohol and his whole world changes. Cut to wild party scenes. It’s the same setup. Luhrmann is creative enough that there’s no reason he had to revert to the same framing of the story.
He also chooses this strange tactic of having certain words that Nick is writing (which are actually words from Fitzgerald’s book) appear on the screen. I’d like to think he does this as an homage to the beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing itself, that the words themselves are worth seeing because the actual sentences and flow of words in the novel are so beautifully done. However, I can’t help thinking that Luhrmann did it to just scream “my source material was a book! A book you know!” Whatever the reason, it’s needlessly distracting and silly.
And for these reasons, I don’t think Gatsby is quite as strong as Moulin Rouge. It doesn’t feel as new or original, but is still definitely worth seeing. I disagree with the critics that say Luhrmann is not being true to the original story. While every detail might not be accurate, Luhrmann digs to the root of the story and pulls out the most important points to emphasize, and he’s accurate when he needs to be. He’s true to the characters and the overall class critique of the novel, and that’s why I respect his interpretation.
I recommend seeing this movie, but keep in mind that you’re in for a Baz Luhrmann spectacle first, the Great Gatsby second.