The Great Gatsby (2013), directed by Baz Luhrmann
I did read The Great Gatsby.
It was the summer (or winter?) of 2003 (2004? 2002?). Those were heady days. Okay, so I don’t really know when it was but it was probably 10 years ago now, and I remember very little of it other than I thought it was fantastic and something about a green light. (Listen, I read a lot for my degree, there isn’t room for everything up there. That and, you know, drinking.)
Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of the famed novel gave me enough of a sense of what I loved about the book to make me want to go back and read it again. It reminded me what I dug about the beautiful tragedy of Jay Gatsby’s downfall. But I doubt I’ll have any desire to ever see the movie again.
It’s not that Luhrmann’s film is terrible, it’s just not very good. It has moments of greatness, particularly in the visuals and performances. I admired its gall, its ambition, the sheer scope of the whole thing. But in its bombastic excess it losses the humanity of the story. For all its splendor it leaves you wondering what all the fuss was about.
I realize some of my problems with Luhrmann are personal. Not as in he slept with my sister and never called her personal or anything like that, I just mean I don’t really get his whole…thing.
If Baz invited me to a party, I don’t think I would have a very good time. I wouldn’t like the music, the décor would seem gaudy to me and his friends would all strike me as silly and intolerable. They would probably all try to convince me to “loosen up” and I might for a time, enjoying his quality booze and quietly observing the madness, but I would leave early and likely not attend another.
Watching his movies is a similar experience. Normally I love the frenetic energy of a frantic, swirling movie like The Great Gatsby, but there’s something about Luhrmann’s style which prevents me from getting caught up in it. His insistence on using modern music annoyed me (especially when I realized Jay-Z [Yup!] is an executive producer, hence his prevalence on the soundtrack). I wanted to throttle most of his over-the-top theatrical types in the party scene. I felt more in common with Tom Buchanan than Gatsby when it came to the extravagance of it all.
Maybe that says more about me than Luhrmann, I’m willing to accept that. But I still believe the man is all style And his style is akin to some foppish cabaret that might be appeal to some but likely wouldn’t see my business.
And it especially doesn’t work for a piece like Gatsby, where the whole point is how vacuous and empty all this partying like it’s pre-1929 is. Gatsby is a hero, because of his hope. He may be naive and pitiable, but his innocent hope for meaning is the core of the story. It is the meaningless excess of the times he lives in which is his downfall, even as he attempts to harness it for his noble, misguided pursuits. It is the enemy.
But it’s hardly the enemy in this film. While it may not be to my taste, it’s certainly Luhrmann’s, especially as he’s declared this summer to be the summer of Gatsby. I suppose the point is to have the audience understand the draw, but like so many films about excess and degradation, the form of the movie does far more to celebrate it than it ever does to denounce or question.
In the end I don’t believe you can have both when it comes to The Great Gatsby. To have a film celebrating the theatricality and excess of the times, while at the same time trying to get across the tragic downfall of Jay Gatsby, is to have a film divided against itself.
The Great Gatsby is in cinemas now.