The Great Gatsby (2013)
A Beautiful Little Fool of a Movie
Can The Great Gatsby, to many the quintessential tale of the Roaring 20’s, speak to an audience mired in the tribulations of recession and uncertainty? Baz Lurhmann has endeavored to bring to life not only the glitz and glamor of the Jazz Era novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also the withering discontent and longing of the characters who populate it. It is unfortunate that Lurhmann, who has already proven his ability to shower an audience in spectacular revelry with Moulin Rouge!, only half realizes his vision. The Great Gatsby is a breathtaking visual experience, but ultimately lacks the dramatic punch needed to make an audience care about the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby.
At the center of Fitzgerald‘s story broods Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire who longs for the married Daisy Buchanan, a rich heiress married to the even richer philanderer Tom. To woo Daisy, Gatsby throws lavish parties in his palatial mansion, which sits just across the bay from the Buchanan manse, and next door to the story’s narrator, Nick -a young man from the Midwest who arrives in New York at the height of the Roaring 20’s in order to make his fortune on the stock market. Nick also happens to be a distant cousin to Daisy, as well as a former classmate to Tom, and in Lurhmann’s telling, a writer very much modeled upon Fitzgerald himself. He is therefore perfectly placed to chronicle the events of the love triangle that tragically develops around Jay, Daisy, Tom, and Tom’s mistress, Myrtle. (So more of a love quadrilateral.)
If Gatsby is the story’s center, Nick is it’s heart. A literal outsider with access to all the players, who is capable of both relating and reflecting on the events as a surrogate for the audience. In a world of millionaire Titans, Nick is supposed to be our Prometheus, illuminating the incomprehensible drives of people so alien to the everyday man.
The fatal flaw of Lurhmann’s Gatsby is that this tragedy has no real heart, and therefore no real teeth. The characters that people this tale of misplaced love are perfectly one dimensional: Daisy is careless; Tom, carnal; Myrtle, avaricious. And all unrepentantly selfish. Even Gatsby, played with real style by Leonardo DiCaprio, comes across as a slave to his one ambition of possessing the perfect upper class life embodied for him in Daisy Buchanan. But it is in the failure of the director to establish Nick, played by Tobey Miguire, as the conscience of the story that causes the whole, beautiful house of cards to fall. Even his helpmate and supposed love interest, Jordan, is reduced to a single note: she is a gossip, and nothing more. We are left with no human prism to filter the riot of sights and sounds coming from the stately pleasure domes.
Of sights and sounds, Gatsby delivers. The sets are gorgeous, the costumes elegant, and the New York of the Jazz Era is lovingly recreated in all its gaudy splendor. Even the music by Jay Z, featuring jazz versions of modern R&B hits, is satisfying, and in several places, downright fun. The Great Gatsby is like a fairy-tale castle, splendid and forbidding, and sadly, waiting for human characters to inhabit it and bring it to life.
The tragedy of The Great Gatsby is that Lurhmann gives us only the spectacle, and what could have been a scathing critique of the excesses of the moneyed elite, or a sentimental look at grand happenings in a bygone era, instead becomes merely voyeurism of the lowest sort: celebrities acting badly. We have the Kardashians or The Jersey Shore for that already.
“Being able to mention these two in the same article should be a crime against humanity.”