dir: Baz Luhrmann
Instincts came to the fore, hackles rose up unbidden just thinking about it. Issues filled my head with noise. No porter had to carry my baggage into this cinematic experience because I was happy to do so myself, choosing without a gun to my head, to voluntarily watch another Baz Luhrmann film.
Yet it seduced me all the same. For about an hour. Then it discarded me, ashamed and disillusioned, by the side of the road, well before it ended. Really, looking back, I should have known this would happen. It couldn’t have gone any other way.
After the crime against humanity that was Australia (not the formation of the country, but the execrable movie Luhrmann birthed in unholy fashion upon a suspecting world), I really didn’t think Baz had anything left to say that I wanted to hear. The prospect of seeing his version of the alleged Greatest of the Great American Novels brought to the screen was too tantalising a trainwreck to pass on, all the same.
Whatever I might have said sarcastically already, I did actually like much of the film, most of the film. I think, somehow, miraculously, he gets a lot of it right, or ‘right’, whatever that mighty qualifier might mean. He does what he does. No-one reasonable in their brains would have expected him to do a literal, period-detail-exact rendering of the Roaring '20s or of the novel. He gets, perhaps, the most important parts of it right, like when he depicts the frenzy of the times, the manic euphoria, and Gatsby himself; always yearning, reaching, straining for the green light...
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first hour had me captivated, truly captivated, and for at least half of it, Gatsby's not even in it yet. It's all Nick Carroway's story, as he himself is telling us constantly throughout with narration, because this story is the effect that Gatsby had on him (Carroway), not of Gatsby being the protagonist of his own story.
Tobey Maguire is much maligned, not for anything particularly wrong that he does, but mostly just for being Tobey Maguire. Sure he's bland, sure he's gormless and utterly charm free, but those qualities make him right for certain roles. Is he right for the Carroway role? Probably, since Carroway's job isn't to do stuff, to be active, to have self-determination or agency. Carroway's job is solely to observe, and to be spoken to. He's like the stenographer you see in court dramas; always there, always recording, but never the main participant in the action.
Carroway observes, he watches blankly, but his real job is to read out a few slabs of text from the book, and mostly to tell us what to think about any particular scene. That works, at least at first, before we grow weary of it.
He views this exquisite jewellery box of a New York, all aglow and blooming lights akimbo, with the same fascination that we're supposed to, because it's wondrous to us like it is to him. Though a Yale graduate, he's not exactly a mover or shaker in a world where a lot of moving and shaking is going on. The tension of the times is the old establishment rubbing up against the new world of gauche parvenus and Johnny-come-latelies with their despicable new money smell. Nothing summarises that better than the contempt one of the old guard, being Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) has for those like Gatsby who have risen up from nothing to be wealthy, as opposed to people like him who inherited their wealth the right way just by being born.
I mean, that’s an achievement in itself, isn’t it? Being wonderful enough to be born into money is clearly a distinction that separates the truly worthy from the grasping and rapacious lower orders. Old money abides, is inherently good. New money puts too much effort into it, and thus doesn’t really deserve it.
Carroway isn’t old money, but he’s from an old worthy family, so he’s entitled to be ‘here’, wherever that ‘here’ is at any point in time. He can be a bridge between the two worlds, well, just because. It’s because he observes only, he doesn’t aspire to anything, whether it’s prestige, money or love that means he can get away with it.
Naturally, this puts him in the perfect position to be exploited by everyone around him. Tom, married to Nick’s ditzy cousin Daisy (Carrie Mulligan), drags Nick along even when he’s going to bang his hideous mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher, perfectly cast in a role that doesn’t really need that much dialogue but has it anyway). You’d think that that’s insulting, but Nick doesn’t seem to mind, nor does he seem to feel the need to tell his cousin Daisy about it.
It was a different time, maybe, or maybe he’s putting both bros and hoes before blood. It was the twenties, after all. Prohibition, perversely, makes alcohol pour from the sky, and everyone seems to be partying like they know the Great Depression is just around the corner, and though the flick never gets too sleazy, which is a bit of a shame, it’s implied that it’s not just the era of Bright Young Things but that they’re also all carrying on like rabbits on MDMA on heat on schoolies week.
Not that Nick seems to be getting any. Always the elusive Gatsby seems to be just out of reach, and always just out of line of sight. Nick falls in love, somewhat, with Gatsby before he’s even met him. The rumours don’t help either. Gatsby is the Kaiser’s cousin, the Kaiser’s assassin, the bastard son of one of the Rockefellers, a bootlegger or the Lindbergh Baby, depending on who Nick is listening to.
And when Nick finally meets his elusive neighbour, who has been equal measure of Charles Foster Kane and Jesus until now, he turns out to look exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio, doing his best matinee idol grin with a champagne glass held towards us invitingly.
It’s at exactly the half hour mark when this happens, in slow motion, no less, and though it made me chuckle, it’s a great moment in film. DiCaprio has played charming bastards, rich charming bastards and crazy people, but that image of him, saturnine and smashing, is a career highlight for him. He’s earned it.
Unfortunately, his performance here is not going to be remembered for his acting, because I got the feeling about an hour later than now, that Luhrmann or someone at the studio didn’t have confidence in his performance at all. I’ll explain later.
He seduces Nick with a story of his past, a story no less fantastical than the ones being told at the party just before Gatsby appeared, but the one that Nick is going to believe for at least half an hour or so. There’s a tale of inherited wealth, of valour and heroism during the war, of killing hundreds of the Kaiser’s troops with his bare hands, and we know it’s bullshit. It has to be. Even Nick doesn’t seem to mind. He’s just entranced by this man’s energy, and perhaps, simply by the fact that a dynamic man like this is showing any interest in him.
What he’s most convinced of is that Jay Gatsby is somebody. No, he’s a Somebody. He’s a Somebody not because he’s smashingly wealthy, or because he knows the right people, but because his backstory makes him a Somebody. The worst thing to be in this world is a Nobody. Being a nobody would be worse than death.
Whenever someone shows interest like this in you, of course, they always ask for something in return; whether it’s your cherry, your bank account details, or your immortal soul, there’s always a catch. Gatsby’s overtures of friendship must be selfish, we surmise, when it comes out that the only reason Gatsby needs Nick is to get access to Nick’s cousin Daisy.
There’s a reason why Gatsby lives where he lives, there’s a reason why he gives parties so lavish and so well attended that almost everyone for miles around has to come, there’s a reason why he splashes his wealth so splashily... love, it’s always love.
You see... well, there’s this whole backstory involved, and you are more than welcome to read the novel and then watch the film, in order to see for yourself if this movie justifies its own existence by approximating anywhere near what it should. For me, it’s in the details of the specific imagery that Luhrmann, or at least, the production and design people, got right. The image of the disembodied eyes and gold-rimmed glasses, gazing pitilessly across the ashpiles of that horrible shanty town in between more worthy, wealthy realms, was perfect. The decor and such of the various rich bastard places look opulent and such, but it’s not like that kind of stuff matters to me.
No, it’s those judging eyes, the eyes of God, who’s apparently short-sighted, which will come as no surprise to anyone, they watch all and do nothing to stop the inevitable tragedies that will ensue. And why will tragedies ensue?
Because you can’t repeat the past, we’re told, even if someone thinks they can so fervently that they’ll sacrifice everything in order to recreate it.
Whatever the reasons for the downfalls of certain characters, the saddest thing is the manner in which the flick falls apart depicting this part of the film. I’m unsure, at this stage, whether my dissatisfaction with the last part of the story is dissatisfaction with the story itself (as in, it’s Fitzgerald’s fault), with the characters or just the way the flick depicts matters. There’s a scene which is meant to be crucial, an important scene of confrontation between Buchanan and Gatsby, and it just feels... off. It doesn’t improve from there.
The last part which really soured me on the flick involved a scene where Gatsby is coming clean to Nick, telling him the real story of what and who he is. As he starts talking, much to my lament, DiCaprio’s voice cuts out and, infuriatingly, Nick Carroway’s voiceover tells us a summary of what Gatsby is meant to be saying.
It’s absurd, it’s wrong, and it means either one of two things: that the original scene as played by DiCaprio came out shit, or that they didn’t think it was important enough for the character or the story, which is nuts.
One of those is forgivable, since it means they were making do with a bad situation. If the other is true, then it was a bad, bad, bad decision, one that combines with a number of other decisions that decrease our ability to care about the characters, or, more importantly, decrease our ability to understand why they bothered with a story they couldn’t commit to. It makes the back half of the flick impossible to appreciate, for me. Maybe I’ll soften my stance on a future viewing, but the last third of the flick really undid the first two thirds, for me.
All the same, I enjoyed it enough not to condemn it completely. It’s not a disaster by any stretch, and maybe that’s making me feel slightly more generous towards it. At the very least, Baz Luhrmann has created a flick that high school kids will be tormented with for decades to come when lazy or hungover teachers want a break from teaching the text of that Great American Novel about the emptiness at the heart of America, and he deserves some kind of minor award for that alone.
7 times it staggered me that there were so many scenes of actors getting well paid to sit around and not say anything around DiCaprio out of 10
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby