By Don Simpson | May 8, 2013
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann (screenplay), Craig Pearce (screenplay), F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Isla Fisher, Adelaide Clemens, Stephen James King, Olga Miller, Heather Mitchell, Gus Murray, Kate Mulvany, Barry Otto, Kasia Stelmach, Gemma Ward, Felix Williamson
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is manufactured in three dimensions of pure, unfiltered opulence. Taking its narrative cues from Fitzgerald’s novel, Luhrmann’s hyper-real universe is constructed by the storytelling devices of embellishment and exaggeration. Told entirely in flashback, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a patient in a sanitarium as he begins to regurgitate his intoxicated recollections of the Summer of 1922. While telling his own story, Nick pieces together the personal history of his mysterious and eccentric neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). In conveying Gatsby’s story, Nick delves into the unreliable narrative of a man who created his entire life out of nothing. No one truly knows Gatsby because his history is all just an infinitely elaborate ruse. Luhrmann luxuriates in Gatsby’s knack for re-imagining and re-constructing the past — as Gatsby weaves unreal tales about himself, filtered for our consumption through the flowery verbosity of Nick’s prose, the film soaks in the artifice of the unbridled extravagance.
Showcasing the unreliability of Nick’s memories and Gatsby’s tall tales, Luhrmann interjects easily identifiable untruths into the film, such as mixing pop culture reference points of our present with the cultural counterparts of the 1920s. In doing so, Luhrmann establishes clear associations between the pop culture of the 1920s and the present. Hot jazz is mashed-up with hip hop and electronic music; the sexually provocative dancing of the 1920s is blended with modern dance; even the drunken debauchery of 1920s petting parties is modernized and amped up to near-Spring Breakers proportions. I found Luhrmann’s associations to be especially intriguing after having just recently watched Matt Wolf’s Teenage, which also finds the music, parties and attitudes of the young adults of the 1920s to be intrinsically tied with modern youth culture.
Of course, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby functions as a critique of its characters’ over-indulgence and gross decadence. It is a cautionary tale of becoming so engrossed in fantastical parties that reality all but fades away. Luhrmann, however, seems more interested in condemning the 1920s as the birth of the self-made man. Gatsby is very much a product of the Capitalist free enterprise system which professes the concept that anyone can become rich. The stock market made it easy to get rich quick; so did bootlegging and other illegal enterprises. Traditionally wealthy families of East Egg — such as Tom Buchanan’s (Joel Edgerton) — who “earned” their money looked down upon the nouvelle rich of West Egg, like Gatsby, who lied and cheated their way into wealth. This facade of wealth could only last for so long, and The Great Gatsby can be read as a warning call for the stock market crash of 1929.
The infinite levels of hyperactive falseness do not bode well for the dialogue and plot, which are mere afterthoughts for a man of style-over-substance such as Luhrmann. While most of Nick’s voiceover narrative does retain the literary fortitude of Fitzgerald’s poetic finesse, the dialogue seems overly-simplified and watered-down. The plot may hit most of the primary scenes of Fitzgerald’s novel, but Luhrmann seems much more comfortable conveying the themes of the story with visual allusions rather than words. This might have been a more interesting film if Luhrmann kept his actors silent, since they are often left spouting relatively pointless dialogue while having to rely upon pantomime to convey their character’s real emotions. On that note, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan (who plays Daisy by way of flawlessly channeling Clara Bow) prove that they would have made fantastic silent film actors.