F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the billion-dollar staple of American high-school reading. At times, watching Baz Luhrmann’s fantasy “The Great Gatsby” feels like reliving the entire length of junior year. At other times, it reaches out to the green light and snatches what it’s after: a mad dream of one of America’s essential novels.
“The Great Gatsby” by Baz Luhrmann is exactly like what you would expect “The Great Gatsby” by Baz Luhrmann to be. Unlike the overforested 1974 Robert Redford version, where the acting was barely distinguishable from the dense wooden environs, this “Gatsby” glories in its paint-splashed, pin-wheeling fictionality. Each of the story’s famous locations–West Egg, East Egg, the Valley of Ashes–feels like a life-size diorama.
As a fan of the book, the world portrayed within is unabashedly thrilling. The endless lawns, the sooty backroads, the gleaming skyscrapers sparkle like we imagine it as we lift it from the page. The enormous flapper party at the Gatsby mansion pops, aided greatly by the film’s 3-D nature, a passionate blast of Gershwin, and production designer Catherine Martin’s sense of excess. There’s a current critical vogue against style, as though spectacle, particularly CG spectacle, is fundamentally deceptive. That’s a shame, because it devalues the medium’s ability to intoxicate us with a cocktail of reality and imagination.
“Modernizing” literary classics can seem dishonorable. There’s a lingering distaste from watching other post-modern cinematic decorators splash color and literary works of genius—like Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” or Julie Taymor’s “Titus.” Is it piggybacking on a superior talent, as if a DJ sampled White Christmas or Good Vibrations without much disguise? There’s a moment in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” when a young man says he doesn’t read novels, only literary criticism. That way you get a two-for-one value on the perspectives of both the writer and the critic.
Films like “Gatsby,” when successful, give us both the perception of the writer and the loving imagination of the reader. I don’t think Luhrmann infects the film with a lot of extra depth. It didn’t make me step back and think anew about what he or Fitzgerald are saying. But he does bring a untold amounts of genuine affection.
Gatsby is a story of ghosts: both he and Daisy Buchanan seeming spectral and haunted. Leonardo DiCaprio does pretty well with the character’s mirroring personality and tragic romantic idealism. Carey Mulligan, while a fine actress, never feels right in the part—I’m not sure she fits at all with the comic bent that Luhrmann brings to the story. That comic element explains Tobey Maguire, and the weirdly virginal take on Nick Carraway. It plays up his innocence while playing down his more perceptive side. It couldn’t be more different than Sam Waterston’s performance.
“Gatsby” does go through a number of dry stretches, periods of time where it just doesn’t seem to be working. It also is too long, and I’m a film writer who never thinks a film is too long. I think it’s saved by a couple of very simple facts. First, there’s a reason they make you read Gatsby—it’s a terrific story relatable to the world around us. Most of all, it’s saved by his unwavering faith and his love for the material. Like Gatsby, he believes in his object of his desire, his light at the end of the pier.
“The Great Gatsby” will open the 66th Cannes Festival on May 15th. SCREENCOMMENT // FESTIVALS / @ CANNES +
Do you know what’s on the soundtrack of “The Great Gatsby”? Jay-Z and Kanye West performing “No church in the wild”; a cover of U2’s “Love Is Blindness” performed by Jack White; a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” performed by Andre 3000 and Beyoncé; a song called “Young and Beautiful” performed by Lana Del Rey, and a song called “Over the Love” performed by Florence + the Machine.