Nick Carraway, at the start of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark novel The Great Gatsby, tells us that “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope”. And so it was with infinite hope that I, while reserving judgment (after seeing the trailers for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece), sat down to let the saga of Nick and Tom and Jay and Daisy play itself out.
But it promptly begins with a swooping shot across a lake and into a sanitarium, where Nick (Tobey Maguire) is telling his lab-coated doctor about the salad days in 1922 when he met a man named Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nick, it turns out, has been diagnosed (and hospitalized) with, among other things, “morbid alcoholism”.
And just like that, Baz lost me.
Yes, Mr. Luhrmann is allowed to take whatever poetic license he chooses. If he wants to set the story in Iowa in 1975, he has that right. But don’t tell me Nick was later institutionalized and, in doing so, completely undermine the reliability of the narrator and add an unneeded (and completely contrarian) layer to the story. It doesn’t fly.
The Great Gatsby is widely regarded as one of the best American novels (if not the best), and there’s a reason that it’s on the curriculum in high schools across the country. It’s also, some would argue, inherently un-filmable; even the 1974 Redford and Farrow attempt left many people underwhelmed (and yawning). Luhrmann, who presumably has “Go Big or Go Home” hung in needlepoint above his fireplace, decided to distract everyone in the hopes that the razzle-dazzle of it all would make us forget the incredible nuance with which Fitzgerald wrote.
For the entire first half of the film Luhrmann (who co-wrote the screenplay with his “Red Curtain Trilogy” collaborator Craig Pearce) gives us an unending stream of wild and crazy parties set to music by everyone from Jay-Z to Florence + the Machine. (…which makes it silly, I suppose, to quibble over the fact that Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is used two years too early.)
As for the screenplay, all the relevant passages find their way in (the valley of ashes, the beautiful shirts, the blue lawn), but more often than not they seem forced and out of place, especially as they’re uttered while Fergie is belting out “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” underneath.
The 3D of it all is highlighted early and often, as streamers, confetti, popping champagne corks, and fireworks blast forth from the screen. It all makes for great spectacle, but I can easily imagine Fitzgerald not only rolling over in his grave but clapping his hands to his ears to drown out the din.
Right around the time that Nick sets up the Daisy-Gatsby tea, though, things quiet down significantly, and Luhrmann takes a much-needed breath. It’s here that The Great Gatsby begins to redeem itself.
DiCaprio and his long-time buddy Maguire both hold up their end of the bargain, perfectly cast in their roles and cutting through the noise to provide the gravitas that Gatsby requires. And Carey Mulligan as Daisy is just about as luminescent as someone can be on a movie screen.
In all fairness, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, in and of itself, is a fairly entertaining film with rich (figuratively and literally) characters, gobs of eye candy, and a compelling story. But if you spend its two-plus-hour run time comparing it to the novel, you will leave anywhere from flummoxed to outright perturbed.
Let’s just go on the assumption that Nick was later misdiagnosed and quickly released.