Who knew an old high school English class chestnut would be one of the main cultural events of the summer movie season?
It’s been over a decade since Baz Luhrmann made his signature film and masterpiece, 2001’s experimental, infuriating, over-the-top Moulin Rouge!, an MTV-influenced musical pastiche whose anachronistic spiritual twin was the Bollywood musical. In a similar vein, Luhrmann’s more straight-forward dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby draws the source novel into the long-held discussion on New York high society. Whereas we start the discussion with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and then posit Gatsby as both the beginning and end of turn-of-the-century Manhattan social circles, Luhrmann’s film seems more apt to reference Gossip Girl by way of its themes of belonging, its dissection of old money and new money, and acceptable forms of desire.
The story is familiar and part of the canon of great American literature. Aspiring stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in New York to make his fortune in the summer of 1922, when the alcohol was free-flowing, the flapper girls were cooing siren-like calls to the lovelorn, and many were awash in unprecedented wealth. The 1920s were the first half of the twentieth century’s counterpart to the 1980s. Nick visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her brutish old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) on Long Island, and becomes not so much friends with them as thrown together in common circumstances. New York was in thrall to the wild, weekend-long parties of Nick’s neighbor, the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). These gatherings at his sprawling, Citizen Kane-like estate were so lavish that no one was ever invited, but anyone and everyone simply showed up in droves to bathe in the overindulgence and drink the champagne that flowed like water. (It is no coincidence that The Great Gatsby is also opening this year’s Cannes Film Festival.) It turns out that Jay and Daisy were once in love, and he’s returned from obscurity with obscene wealth and the single-minded goal to rekindle their romance.
While most critics have laid waste to Luhrmann’s aesthetic choices, with some of the worst reviews likening this film to a sorority or frat house party, I posit that Luhrmann’s aesthetic is exactly right for this story. If you wanted a slavish recreation of the era and to render it delicately, see the somnambulistic 1974 film version that had Robert Redford and Mia Farrow wandering about languidly in delicate drawing rooms like they were in the world’s most tedious, but well-dressed zombie flick. Gatsby was always a garish, larger-than-life character, and his ambitions and passions were as wide as the boundless Midwestern sky from which he emerged. The film’s extravagant set pieces vividly soar with the giddy contact high from his parties, the promise of youth, beauty and wealth on grandiose display. Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin (Mrs. Baz Luhrmann) has outdone herself with the period production and costume designs. One wants to buy everything on screen. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby brings to mind the extravagance of large-scale opera like the Bregenz Festival. Like in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, nothing draws derision and criticism quite like audacity and sheer nerve. The film has strong promotional tie-ins with such luxury brands as Moet & Chandon, Tiffany & Co., and Brooks Brothers, exploring and showcasing the film’s exploration of conspicuous consumption while at the same time teasing audiences with the promise of happiness through the acquisition of those goods. Is this a comment on consumerist culture in a time of global economic crisis?
The cast, as one would expect, steps up to these iconic characters with vigor and the requisite energy. DiCaprio makes a vibrant, arrogant Gatsby and brings out the truth behind the façade: not Gatsby’s humble beginning, but his social awkwardness that makes him try just a little too hard. The challenge of playing Daisy has always been alluring given that she’s such a thinly-written character. Daisy has always been more a promise and not a fully-realized woman, a sign, signifier and symbol of desire, fantasy and unfulfilled dreams. Mulligan’s vibrancy makes her more than just a projection of fantasy made flesh in Gatsby’s mind. Joel Edgerton’s raw anger is what we need for the jealous, puerile Tom Buchanan, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Armie Hammer would have made the part his signature role. Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is delicious as Jordan, the famed golfer and teller of tall tales. While Jordan’s penchant for duplicity is almost completely gone from the film, Debicki makes us want to see more of her. The key role and film’s best performance belongs to Tobey Maguire, whose Nick Carraway is the narrative counterpart to Ewan McGregor’s Christian in Moulin Rouge!.
And what of the film’s celebrated and already notorious soundtrack? Working again with Craig Pearce and this time with the emperor of the music world, Jay-Z (with his empress dowager Beyoncé in tow), the film’s sound is more contemporary than Moulin Rouge!. With the latter, the re-mixing and re-working of recognizable pop songs mixed in with Bollywood dance beats, house and Broadway made the soundtrack almost defy every era, and inadvertently rendering it timeless. My concern is if the same could be said for The Great Gatsby’s soundtrack. Nevertheless, it is itself full of gems and curiosities. While Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” and Florence + the Machine’s “Over the Love” soar on the proverbial wings of love, the Andre 3000 / Mrs. Z collaboration on Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” feels a shade extraneous. It works well as a call-and-answer, but it can’t improve on the original’s emotional bloodletting. Ironically enough, Emeli Sandé’s version of Mrs. Carter’s “Crazy in Love” as a sped-up flapper jazz suite is better than the latter’s own contribution. Still, it is entirely appropriate for the most ostentatiously wealthy of today’s musical royalty to contribute to the sounds of arguably the most over-the-top film of the year. (If anyone else tops Luhrmann in cinematic excess in 2013 he may be out of a job.)
The film is not itself perfect. There is a coda tacked on where Nick is narrating the events from a rehabilitation facility that is an exercise in directorial vanity. The lovely and talented Isla Fisher is underused as Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, there are too many uses of the same matte drawing to signify the commute between Long Island and Manhattan, and some of the more intimate gatherings run on too long, making some want to leave the party early. But then again, the film’s aesthetic is that more is more, so it is fitting even when the films needs to be more heavily edited.
If nothing else, The Great Gatsby is on all levels a visual essay on the fluid nature of dreams, and an inadvertent criticism of conspicuous consumption, even as it is itself seems complicit in its encouragement. (If anyone needs me, I’ll be at Brooks Brothers.)