One of the greatest feats of creativity is to bring to life a character of impossible contradictions, one who is both dignified and comic at the same time. The moment when Leonardo DiCaprio announces himself to Nick Carraway, “I’m Gatsby, old sport,” pins these contradictions in place like a rare butterfly. In the startling appearance of the glowing, doomed hero of Fitzgerald’s novel, DiCaprio really nails the tragicomic essence of Gatsby: a self-made prince, whose natural royalty and optimism are undermined by his overreaching. It reminded me of the joke that asks, “how many snobs does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is one — and the world revolves around him.
Baz Luhrmann turns Gatsby’s mansion into a disorienting paradise of parties, cocktails, and jazz, a never-ending dance that revolves around the figure of Gatsby in a swirling mill of rumor, envy, and fantasy. But the problem that monarchs have with the world revolving around them is that, since the whole merry-go-round hinges on their dreams, nobody can – or dares – to tell them the truth, whatever that is. I suppose this is the point of Luhrmann’s maximalism: to depict a world of sycophantic dependents, as numerous as jasmine blossoms and as temporary as champagne bubbles, who will melt away as soon as their monarch comes to grief. While I recognize and applaud this attempt to realize the novel, I am sorry, but I’m going to have to be the one to rip that needle off the gramophone: Gatsby was a flop.
This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t worth seeing; there’s much more to say about the work of a director who is so ambitious that even his mistakes are worth watching. And I’m not talking ambition in the Christopher Nolan sense, where the conceptual is stretched unconvincingly across a studio scaffold – (hint: I’m not a Christopher Nolan fan). I’m talking about Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious way of mobilizing the whole hierarchy of the crew to produce movies maximalist in all aspects of their production: from the all-star soundtrack (Jay-Z, Lana Del Rey) to the costumes (Prada) and the choreography of the parties. Fitzgerald’s novella is voluptuously out of control in the hands of Luhrmann: it is abundantly beautiful, it is lost, it is Daisy.
Perhaps it would have been fine if Tobey Maguire’s narrator had been able to provide the much needed bitter in Luhrmann’s cocktail. Instead, he is dopey and innocent, enticed into Gatsby’s debauched world like a toddler taking his first steps. When I first saw Maguire lift his fuzzy, likeable face up towards the beacon of Gatsby’s mansion, my reaction was an internal groan. I knew the film was going to scrabble to make lemonade out of Fitzgerald’s bitters and lemon – and it was going to fail.
But I’m doing my best to steer away from writing this review as a literary snob, comparing movie and book on a point-by-point basis. The film deserves many honorable mentions in its own right. DiCaprio is excellent (though not the general consensus on the internet). And Joel Edgerton is brilliantly cast as Tom Buchanan. The scenes between him, Myrtle, and George Wilson really spring to life as Luhrmann animates them with a deft, carnivalesque brutality that is more vivid than the book can convey.
But back to the reason we went to the cinema in the first place, which was not to see any old Gatsby adaptation (there have been plenty), but to see a Luhrmann adaptation – the Trimalchio, if you will, of adaptations. Luhrmann didn’t just fail by the standards of the book, he failed by his own standards. I’m aware that Luhrmann has been doing tacky better than anyone for years, so this may seem redundant, but the CGI shots of the bay stagger on the precipice of hyperreal and end up just looking fake. Unfortunately, Luhrmann broke the number-one rule of tack, (which I just made up ): “paint, not plastic surgery.” Dress-up should be fun, like masquerade, not reconstructive like a Hollywood star’s attempts to peel back youth. Because Luhrmann has been so successful in his career and so over-the-top flamboyant in all of his work, it would be hard to pinpoint the moment when he “sold out,” but Gatsby shows all signs of being it.
Instead of approaching them with sleight of hand and artistry, all the opportunities for flaunt and flair were treated as if they were “green lights” to go for broke. Like one of Gatsby’s blow-out parties, everyone who is anyone in the entertainment industry is in the film. I doubt Luhrmann could have turned away A-Listers like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch, Prada, and the rest, at the door, but perhaps it would have made a better film if all these egos hadn’t been jostling around in the lobby. Luhrmann’s aim of including these figures was evidently to make the film relevant to a 2013 audience, but is it really updating the novel to have Jay-Z provide all the music for Gatsby’s raves? Jay-Z’s after-work dance-party hip hop is hardly bleeding edge. Instead of feeling transported to a full-blown alternate reality, as Luhrmann’s other films have the power to do, I kept wondering why I was watching all these wealthy twenty-first century hipsters gyrate around a swimming pool. When forcibly brought up to date by the bass pumping through Gatsby’s top quality speakers, it feels jarring, like the record needle ripping out of orbit. The emperor has no clothes – Prada had fashioned exquisite robes of nothing but air.
Still, I found myself enjoying Gatsby more than all its flaws would suggest. This extravagant film doesn’t feel as cynical as all that. It feels like a party thrown for the whole world, and a genuine statement about our times. For the biking, mustache-wearing hipster generation, who take their inspiration from the 1910s, maybe the next era of fashion has something to teach us about the bubble we’re in, how it resembles past eras in more than just style, and how it has the potential to develop along the same lines. My advice: go see Gatsby. After all, the world revolves around it this summer – and you’re in that brave new world, whether you like it or not.