The Tragic Emptiness of 'The Great Gatsby'

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As a caveat, I should state up front that I have not read The Great Gatsby since high school, a decade and a half ago. I remember liking all the rich and mysterious writing in F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal novel, and I think the paper I wrote on it went well, but if you're looking for in-depth analysis of how Baz Luhrmann's gaudy new film adaptation compares to the intricacies of the novel, you may need to look elsewhere. That said, I'm pretty sure Luhrmann's Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby are two very different things. Where Fitzgerald gives us a lyrical (but no less forceful for it) condemnation of a society ravaged by materialism, Luhrmann has created an opulent, tragic Horatio Alger tale of lost love. The excesses of Roaring Twenties New York high society are certainly pooh-poohed in the film, but they are swaddled in so much visual pop and frenetic beauty that the criticism barely registers. Too enamored of its own decadence, The Great Gatsby says a lot without saying much of anything.

Entering into a Baz Luhrmann film is always disorienting. His beginnings are hurried and frantic, the camera darting to and fro as we meet a jumble of people, the setting messily outlined. Well, OK, the technical beginning of Gatsby places us on the quiet, wintry grounds of a sanitarium where our narrator Nick Carraway (forever bland Tobey Maguire) has holed himself up, seeking treatment for alcoholism, anxiety, and the sort of despair that typically afflicts young literary men. That Luhrmann and his co-adapter Craig Pearce decided to tack this framing device onto Fitzgerald's story has already been grumbled about a fair bit, so I won't do much of that here, but the bleak look of the place, and the deadness in Nick's eyes as he relates this fabulous tale of secrets and sandcastles, only serves to heighten the awkward sense that we are supposed to long for the old West Egg days when really I don't think that's the point of the story at all. A little melancholy makes sense, time lost and all that, but these are not happy days being remembered. I suppose Luhrmann wanted to give Gatsby the same sad sweep of Moulin Rouge, which also begins with a character telling a story about entering a near-fantastical world and grandly losing love. It doesn't quite work here, though.

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But back to those frenzied beginnings. Nick is quickly sucked into his memories of 1920s New York City and points east, specifically the North Shore of Long Island, home to the (invented) moneyed enclaves of West Egg and East Egg. West is full of the nouveau riche, while across the bay the old, old money set up camp long ago. Nick arrives there as an ambitious young man, renting a house in West Egg but traveling to visit his cousin Daisy (a breezy yet ham-handed Carey Mulligan) across the bay. She's married to an old Yale classmate of Nick's named Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who despite his good breeding is mostly a swaggering, vaguely menacing lout. Daisy seems addled while Tom seems uninterested, but Nick is too busy gaping at their palace by the sea to notice — and too entranced by the down-low dirty booze-'n'-jazz life that Tom introduces him to in the city. Nick's wander into the extremes of extravagance continues as he meets his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mind-bogglingly wealthy man who throws lavish bacchanals that are the talk of the town, though Gatsby himself doesn't ever seem to be having much fun. He's a mysterious fellow, this Gatsby, and Nick takes to him immediately, hoping to learn the truth about the man behind the mansion.

Up to this point, Luhrmann had won me over with tantalizing images: the famed green light pulsing lonely and alluring in the night, bright and saucy parties teetering on the brink of chaos (and only feeling slightly like rehashes of various Moulin Rouge scenes), Gatsby himself framed by fireworks, a curious sad smile on his face. The film looks and feels — Luhrmann is, after all, quite good at creating mood — like it is about to tell us something grand and profound, about a world that is both beginning and ending. It's odd, but exhilarating. Alas, then the second half of the film begins, and it quickly pares itself down to a simple tragic love story — Gatsby and Daisy were sweethearts once, y'see — that's rushed into very quickly before slowing to a glacial pace, the insistingly gauzy images becoming repetitive and rote. Nick's sociological discoveries, and thus ours, are pushed aside so Luhrmann can train his camera on DiCaprio and Mulligan yearning prettily and sadly for one another. It's no surprise that Luhrmann felt drawn to an epic tale of thwarted romance, and he knows how to lay one on pretty thick, but there was so much more he could have done with this particular material. His Gatsby ultimately proves an overly simple, and decidedly unthoughtful, stagger through familiar territory.

It's not without its merits, though. DiCaprio, who can often be deceptively shallow and without nuance on screen, here takes an earnest leap into his Gatsby. What initially seems like the same old Leo shtick — a pretty kid trying on an accent and a set of mannerisms — eventually blossoms into a full-blooded performance, one alive with quiet ache and the weariness of secret-keeping. Perhaps DiCaprio understood something about a man whose high-profile playboy life is, deep down, all an act of pretend. (Were the Pussy Posse years Leo's roaring 20s?) He's especially effective in a scene that is otherwise misguided: Nervous about seeing his beloved Daisy again for the first time in five years, Gatsby is a jumble of nerves and clumsiness. Yes, Leo DiCaprio does some physical comedy and proves surprisingly adept; his cocky, leonine features suddenly betraying a gentility that's a good look on him.

Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, playing socialite golfer Jordan Baker, is also a standout, tall and willowy with a patrician drawl that has the zippy confidence of Cate Blanchett in many a role. I came to quite like Edgerton's performance as well, especially as he carefully and intelligently calibrated Tom's haughty rage in one key scene. The much crowed-about music, a mash-up of contemporary hip-hop and pop, has its moments — Quaalude-soaked chanteuse Lana del Rey's song "Young and Beautiful" featuring most prominently, and successfully. But it's what composer Craig Armstrong does with those tunes, turning them into orchestral riffs that haunt and envelop, that's really striking. When that music swells and the green light burns, the picture feels truly 3D, immersive and captivating. But unfortunately those moments are few and fleeting.

The Great Gatsby is certainly not the disaster I expected it to be, but never gets off the ground the way it occasionally, cruelly, feels it might. There is, despite all the poetry of the language, an intimacy to Fitzgerald's prose that feels inelegantly blown up in the film. In some cases quite literally, with various bits of text appearing on the screen. (Seeing, and hearing, "Borne back ceaselessly..." in this way turned a gorgeous ending into something corny.) Really, Luhrmann's interpretation of the story -- which seems to be that Gatsby was a dreamer, and dreamers are pretty great -- feels rudimentary, and in some ways self-serving. He had all the romance tales in all the world to choose from if he wanted to do what he's done here, but he took Gatsby instead. He didn't waste any time staring longingly across the bay, either. He jumped right in the water, swam over to that green symbol, snapped it off and brought it back to us, asking us to admire it without realizing that, in all that effort, most of the light had gone out.

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