A Grating Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation is just the latest example of his tragic attraction to tragedy.
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Director Baz Luhrmann's rowdy, cluttered adaptation of The Great Gatsby is a difficult film to categorize. It's not a satire, exactly, though many of its strongest moments are openly satirical. It is far too literal a translation to be considered an homage. And its oddly straightforward, even innocent, air disqualifies it as a subversion. Luhrmann seems to want us to feel more or less what Fitzgerald wanted us to feel, only more loudly. Call it a "melodramatization."

To this end, Luhrmann turns every dial at his disposal up to 11. His colors are as bright as those in a detergent commercial; his musical choices as intrusive as the exit cues on an awards show. The camera ducks and swerves like O.J. Simpson on his way to a car rental, and the cast all share a slightly vibratory, methamphetamine sheen. Topping off such excesses of cinematic technique, this Gatsby is rendered in 3D, an innovation only moderately less absurd than presenting Moby Dick in Sensurround, or Cannery Row in Smell-O-Vision. In short, although Luhrmann's film mostly adheres to the letter of Fitzgerald's novel, it would be difficult to envision a work less in keeping with its wistful spirit.

The movie opens with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) setting the stage in tremulous voiceover. Much of his introduction is Fitzgerald's familiar prose—"In my younger and more vulnerable years...," etc., etc.—though the script, by Luhrmann and his usual writing partner Craig Pearce (brother of Guy), does supply some odd and off-key additions. ("All of us drank too much back then...and none of us contributed anything new," Nick explains anachronistically, as if gazing back on 1922 from the present day, rather than 1925.) But odder still are the alterations to Nick's backstory—or, I suppose, fore-story, given that it takes place after the principal events of the film. This Nick has not merely been jaded by his experiences with Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan, he's been driven around the bend: He now resides in a sanatorium, and his purpose in telling the story is a bid for therapeutic redemption.

Thus begins the Moulin Rouge!-ification of Fitzgerald's source material: Like the protagonist of that film (Luhrmann's third, and most successful), this Nick self-identifies as a writer, and his expository voiceover is frequently underlined by having his words appear on the screen as he utters them. Other elements are imported, too, such as the pull-away shots from characters perched in windows to magical-miniature cityscapes. But Luhrmann's latest resembles Moulin Rouge! most obviously in its peculiar synthesis of overzealous showmanship and half-hearted tragedy. In place of Satine's Golden Elephant we have Gatsby's Magic-Kingdom mansion, and in place of Mildly Doomed Nicole Kidman we have Mildly Doomed Leonardo DiCaprio.

It's worth noting here that DiCaprio is in fact awfully good as Gatsby, charming yet uncertain, magnetic yet self-effacing. He's good when the movie is at its most bombastic—his onscreen introduction is accompanied by fireworks and the crescendo of "Rhapsody in Blue"—and he's good on the infrequent occasions it slows down, as when Nick offers to invite Daisy over for tea as a "favor" to him, and he hears the word as if for the first time. DiCaprio could have been terrific if this were a boffo, over-the-top musical entertainment (an adaptation, say, of 42nd Street), or if it were a subdued fable of loss and regret (such as, I don't know, The Great Gatsby?). But Luhrmann's impossibly ill-conceived hybrid of the two is beyond the talent of any actor to make sense of.

At least DiCaprio's is the only genuinely memorable performance wasted by the film. Joel Edgerton is solid (at times a bit too solid) as Tom Buchanan, and Elizabeth Debicki looks the part of Jordan Baker even if she lacks the requisite languor. (Like everyone else in the film, she has the feel of a 33 1/3 rpm record being played at 78.) Maguire is profoundly forgettable as Nick, his existential trauma indiscernible from adolescent ennui. And Carey Mulligan is a minor disaster as Daisy, though it's hard to lay the blame at the actress's feet. It is with her character that Luhrmann most clearly displays his incomprehension of the work he's adapting—or perhaps, more cynically, his assumption that audiences would be unable to comprehend it. This Daisy is indecisive rather than "careless," a co-victim in the story's central tragedy rather than its principal architect, a smash-ee rather than smasher. Among other consequences, this transformation renders Fitzgerald's closing judgment on the Buchanans (which Luhrmann reproduces faithfully) all but meaningless.

The problem is that when the movie is entertaining it's not "Gatsby", and when it's "Gatsby" it's not entertaining.

None of which is to say that The Great Gatsby is a bad movie in the most conventional, will-I-want-my-money-back sense. Luhrmann is, as always, a dazzling ringmaster, and his movie is intermittently quite entertaining. The score (on which he collaborated with executive producer Jay-Z) is imaginative and ecumenical, making evocative use of Lana Del Rey's "Young and Beautiful" and a cover of "Back to Black" by Beyoncé and Andre 3000. Many of the gags offered up are rather amusing, from Gatsby's explosive entrance to an over-enthusiastic flower purchase to a clever segue between Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" and Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'." The problem is that when the movie is entertaining it's not Gatsby, and when it's Gatsby it's not entertaining.

Apart from the misappropriation of Fitzgerald's classic text, what is most frustrating about The Great Gatsby is that it offers yet further proof that Luhrmann has a skill-set tailor-made for comedy that he insists on squandering in ill-fated attempts at tragedy. Since his delightful 1992 debut, Strictly Ballroom—recently released on Blu-ray—Luhrmann has taken five straight stabs at the latter tradition, missing the mark every time: Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, an underwhelming Broadway production of La boheme, the epic folly Australia, and now Gatsby.

If only Luhrmann could be persuaded to put down his high-school syllabi and start leafing through some old song books instead. (Imagine what he could have done, to cite just one example, with the amateurishly under-directed Mamma Mia!.) But his tragic fixation seems incurable, no matter how many heartbroken narrators he cycles through. Just a few days ago, the director announced his hope to reunite with DiCaprio for an adaptation of, yes, Hamlet. And so the question is posed once again. I can only hope that this time the answer is "not to be."

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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