There’s no denying that Baz Luhrmann, the director responsible for previous colorful exercises in anachronism like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, has a distinct artistic vision. But of the many things his Gatsby is—brash, sly, and visually riveting—there is one thing it isn’t: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
To start with, everything in Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby is bigger. Bigger past the bounds of believability. Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), previously a mere loutish, run-of-the-mill blueblood, becomes the villainous son of the richest family in the United States. The “cheerful red-and-white Georgian colonial” he and Daisy inhabit grows to a sprawling estate worthy of Downton Abbey’s Crawley family. And Gatsby’s unruly parties, originally populated by socialites, gangsters, and a variety of odd hangers-on, become behemoth bashes that would put even Louis XIV’s Versailles revelries to shame.
Expanded most of all though is Jay Gatsby himself, who arrives on the scene, not, as in the book with a case of awkward mistaken identity, but with a literal explosion of fireworks and a sparkle in his blue eyes so mesmerizing it’s rivaled only by “The Wiz” who romanced Elaine on Seinfeld.
Thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, the tragic, insecure elements of Gatsby remain intact, but you get the feeling he was working against his director to maintain them. Even as Luhrmann stays true to the novel’s basic events and uses much of its dialogue, the film’s seemingly minor tweaks alter the story’s overall impression. Here we find no irony in the moniker “the great.”
One of the biggest reasons for the movie’s missing note of cynicism is the shift in Nick Carraway. Inexplicably, Luhrmann begins with our narrator in a sanitarium, the events on West Egg apparently having driven him to a mental breakdown. There’s nothing in the book to suggest this, and as a result, Nick’s sharp observations on class and morality are rendered unreliable. This isn’t helped by a wide-eyed, naïve performance from Tobey Maguire that is utterly at odds with the clever, cautious everyman Fitzgerald created. Here, Nick doesn’t seem so much a friend to Gatsby as a disciple.
But it is to Daisy’s character that Lurhmann’s over-the-top vision does the worst damage. As played by the lovely Carey Mulligan, she is so luminous, so innocent, so fragile and conflicted, Gatsby’s five-year obsession with her becomes completely warranted. Luhrmann makes so much of the affair the book tosses away with a few lines (non-explicit scenes of Gatsby and Daisy in bed, along with Tom’s unseen but noisy dalliance with his mistress, account for the movie’s PG-13 rating), it’s as if he wants us to buy into the mirage as much as Gatsby does.
Because of this, when the crucial moment of the story comes, it feels emotionally stunted and unrelated to anything that has passed. Daisy is revealed to be not a “careless” woman toying with an old flame’s affections—a woman who wants to back out when that flame threatens to intrude on her real life—but rather an unstable, and frankly, boring waif.
In fact, it is only when Lurhmann leaves his source material (as opposed to just exaggerating or misinterpreting it) to inject heavy doses of modern sensibility that the movie gets interesting, presenting a startling contrast between the Jazz Age and our own.
With a thumping score by Jay-Z and jarring injections of hip-hop imagery and aggressively contemporary choreography, Luhrmann draws a connection between America’s excesses past and present. Fitzgerald called the extravagance and vulgarity of Gatsby’s ilk “the raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms.” Today, when a socialite’s career (even her entire family’s career) begins with a well-publicized sex tape and rap impresarios brag about their former lives as drug dealers and pimps, there are no more euphemisms, no more chafing. No matter what happened at the end of Fitzgerald’s book, Lurhmann’s boisterous soundtrack proclaims, today Gatsby’s faith in money making the man regardless of how the man makes money would be well-placed. Raw vigor reigns.