“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
That’s the second sentence in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and a severely dumbed-down version of it is the second sentence of the new film adaptation. So perhaps I should give director Baz Luhrmann the benefit of the doubt. What would a wealthy Australian know about the failed promise of the American Dream? Maybe they don’t teach the book in high school down under, where an English teacher would have politely informed him what it’s all about. Whatever the case may be, Luhrmann, who previously directed Moulin Rouge, does not seem to have grasped The Great Gatsby at any level beyond the most basic plot.
The first hour or so resembles nothing so much as a cartoon, a Bugs Bunny exaggeration of the roaring 1920s. The characters are larger than life, even those that aren’t supposed to be, and nothing is left subtle. It becomes clear early on that the movie doesn’t trust its audience to understand anything that isn’t spelled out. Tom Buchanan’s racist rant is highlighted by jabs at his black servant, and the nature of his relationship with Myrtle Wilson is made painfully clear by off screen moaning.
Where this heavy-handedness helps the film is in the massive parties. In these raucous scenes, the movie finally has subject matter big enough to sate Luhrmann’s appetite. I saw it in 2D, but it’s impossible not to notice that this is a 3D movie, given the way the camera zips and zooms through these parties. The movie seems to celebrate with its characters, which is the first case (of many) of Luhrmann missing the point. Fitzgerald was denouncing this lavish lifestyle, not reveling in it.
I wrote just last week that “I have low expectations for the movie because it will inevitably leave out what made the book so good: not the scenes or characters, but the words.” That prediction didn’t come true. In fact, the movie uses a surprising amount of language stripped straight from the book’s pages, especially when it comes to the narration. Often these words end up superimposed on the screen, which feels unnecessary. Perhaps it would have been more necessary in 3D.
This has the weird effect of highlighting Nick Carraway, as though Luhrmann finished the book and found himself deeply curious about what happened to its narrator. That’s an unorthodox reaction, but it would make for an interesting interpretation and a clever addition to the film if Nick Carraway wasn’t portrayed by Tobey Maguire. Maguire is 37, and his character is 29, but on screen he’s imbued him with the boyish wonder and gawkiness of a freshman in college. His voice lends no gravitas to Fitzgerald’s words, and his narration constantly feels strained where in print the prose seems effortless. Of the main actors, Maguire is the only one not to adopt an unplaceable, possibly British accent. This would be to his credit, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s the result of his inability to talk in any way different than his own.
This movie is a car crash, which is to say that there are some reasons to keep watching. Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play Jay Gatsby, and in a movie named after him, that’s pretty important. He provides all the charm and glamour you could possibly ask for in that role. His first interactions with Carey Mulligan’s Daisy are genuinely touching, and the sole bit of humor to be found in two hours and 20 minutes. For a few minutes, the movie deflates its own sense of importance to operate on the human level, and here, where the characters feel for once like actual people, the movie succeeds. Mulligan isn’t spectacular, but she’s believable as Gatsby’s lost lover. Then, it’s back to the grandeur.
Given the remarkable scale that so much of the movie embraces, it’s surprising and disappointing that Luhrmann was content with making the final third of his movie nothing more than a love story. He treats Gatsby and Daisy as if they were star-crossed lovers, a 1920s version of Romeo and Juliet. For the record, I liked Romeo+Juliet, Luhrmann’s modern adaptation of that play, but here he’s telling the wrong story. He sees nothing untoward about Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy, and expects viewers to feel bad when the relationship falls apart.
The Great Gatsby is a very hard book to film. Luhrmann accomplished maybe the hardest part in incorporating Fitzgerald’s language, which is why it’s so frustrating that the movie fails the simpler tasks of adapting this story. He read the words and understood that they were beautiful, but he never thought about what they mean. By boiling things down to a love story between Gatsby and Daisy, he ignores everything that the book and its characters represent. Luhrmann never addresses the themes of inequality, greed and the American Dream, all those things your high school English teacher told you the book was about. Jay Gatsby is reduced from an American Dreamer into a wounded lover. And in that role, there’s nothing great about him.