Flappers and Philosophers
Come for the party, stay for the hangover: that’s been the pattern for Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge!, where riotous song-and-dance numbers gave way to pathos, death and regret, and in his obvious model for that film, La Bohème, which he’s directed thrillingly on the stage.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, party-to-hangover is not really the story, despite the movement from spring revels to late-summer mayhem and mourning. Although Fitzgerald’s narration, or rather Nick Carraway’s, varies in tone from satirical to elegiac, a consistent moral and psychological shrewdness keeps the book feeling all of a piece, even when Nick describes the vulgar frenzies in which he claims not to have lost himself. The novel unfolds in the consciousness of a man who is steady enough to have made it through Yale and the Great War without getting drunk more than once; and yet Luhrmann has found enough highs and lows in the story to make a movie in his own manner—an inspired hodgepodge, a sweeping rise and swooping fall of action, which cleverly diverges from Fitzgerald even while it sticks close to his plot and theme and earns a share of the book’s title.
The hodgepodge-enabling divergence leaps at you (literally, in 3-D) with the first image of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, his hair slicked back and his fine, sharp features made wan and enervated, and lighted so as to play up his resemblance to Fitzgerald. If the face is familiar, so too is the diagnosis given this character. Luhrmann and his screenwriting partner Craig Pearce have introduced their Nick as a depressed, alcoholic writer, confined for a wintery season to a gated Midwestern mansion that looks as if it could have come out of The Magnificent Ambersons and is called, with a wink at the audience, the Perkins Sanitarium. Right away, as Nick begins his voiceover, the movie resolves the question that must be asked of any first-person narrative: Why are you telling me all this? The answer in this case is that Nick is trying to write his way to a cure.
Leave aside for a moment the next obvious question, which is whether the story will also be therapeutic for the audience. The matter of immediate concern is that the movie deliberately flattens Nick into a cardboard cutout of Fitzgerald. Luhrmann and Pearce eliminate the subplot of Nick’s cold, dubious relationships with women and his almost erotic attraction to liars; they rid him of the curiosity, aloofness and politely unvoiced sense of superiority that enable him to function in the novel as a peeping Tom, and suggest that the sins of the characters are being committed not before the billboard eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, or God, but of Nick Carraway. “Always try to see the best in people,” the movie’s Nick recalls his father having told him; but this, of course, is not at all what Nick remembers at the start of the novel. There, his father had advised him to refrain from criticizing people because others may not have had his “advantages”—meaning his family’s supposed innate decency.
The book’s Nick begins by confessing to a mindset that’s almost guaranteed to make a young man judgmental, in a hypocritically reserved way that allows the verdicts to keep coming. But the movie’s Nick has no intriguing complications and does not judge. As the flashback begins, he bobs into the Manhattan of 1922 wearing a straw boater and an ingenuous, scrub-faced grin that reveal him to be a mere cork, bobbing on the era’s tides of Wall Street money and bathtub gin. He’s so lightweight that when Luhrmann hurries him out to dine at the vast estate of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Nick stutter-steps helplessly down Tom’s endless corridor of athletic trophies and then staggers, with sheer amazement on his face, into the wonderland of billowing white curtains that is Daisy’s drawing room.
So far, everything has conformed to the keyed-up, game-playing style for which Luhrmann is known. The images of doughboys, stock traders and speakeasies are cut together so quickly they’re like cards being shuffled; the CGI fly-overs across the bay between West Egg and East Egg zoom back and forth like a tennis ball; the first glimpse of Daisy as just a hand, lifted into view above the back of a sofa, turns the scene into a round of charades, in which she’s both the clue-giver and the answer. It’s all ravishing, vertiginous and hyperbolic, to be taken precisely at face value and not very seriously at all: from Tom’s hypermasculinity (he seems so thick, as Joel Edgerton plays him, that he’s scarcely managed to grow eyes in his slab of a head) to Daisy’s hyperfemininity (embodied by Carey Mulligan with glowing pastel insincerity) to the “frightening” androgyny of the golf champion Jordan Baker, who looms half a head above Nick in the languorous, slinky, elongated person of Elizabeth Debicki, an actress with a Nefertiti face that grabs the camera and won’t let go.
And still, at this point, the action is rising, because Luhrmann has not yet reached his big come-on in Gatsby: the kaleidoscopic party scenes, where the entire crowd is choreographed, the music is a mash-up of Gershwin and Jay-Z, and every part of the set is at any time ready to explode into confetti, water jets, fireworks or all three.
You could resist these scenes, I suppose, though I don’t see why you’d want to. They jolt you in a way that a responsible period reconstruction would not. The exultation of the crowd blasts off the screen in an analogy to what I imagine people felt at the time, as they excitedly flouted the law and demolished social norms—not least through the eruption into white America of the people Tom Buchanan despises as the “colored” races.
To provide the climax, Luhrmann brings on the instigator of all this flash and empty noise. Jay Gatsby turns to introduce himself, just as everything around him seems to leap toward the sky; and as soon as you and Nick come face to face with him, as phony as he is, The Great Gatsby feels as if it could become a serious movie.
It’s not just that Leonardo DiCaprio, who was born to play Gatsby, gleams as brightly as you’d expect. Of course his surface is impeccable. What’s amazing is the mixture of willpower and uncertainty, mendacity and credulity, gracefulness and self-conscious posing that he conveys, even before you see him speak. He just has to smile; and a large part of the effect, for me, comes from the way he furrows his forehead and looks up toward you with a slightly too-knowing, your-obedient-servant expression that seems to have come from the face of the young Orson Welles.
I don’t want to play a mug’s game and try to guess an artist’s intention, but neither can I imagine that a movie-mad director like Luhrmann would miss this resemblance, or that he would ignore the opportunity, after Gatsby’s spanking new historic mansion has become echoing and deserted, to evoke memories of Kane’s Xanadu. Just as the audience, if halfway alert, can be counted on to think of events that exist outside the novel but are relevant to it—the stock-market crash that ended Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, for example, or the popping of one of our recent financial bubbles—so too does Luhrmann superimpose passing hints of Welles and Kane onto the story of Jay Gatsby.
This is merely to say the obvious: that Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is rooted in 1920s America but not limited to it, even in the casting. (Witness the decision to turn the ugly Jewish stereotype of Wolfsheim into a magnificent figure capable of being played by India’s great film star Amitabh Bachchan.) The film diverges from Fitzgerald on its way toward becoming something more general: a new version of the myth of the brilliant young man who comes out of nowhere burning for success, makes a spectacular commotion, and then fades into the twilight of just a few people’s memories.