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.