The Great Gatsby unfolds upon the screen like a cross between two of Baz Luhrmann’s earlier films — the sparkly romance of Romeo + Juliet met with the hypnotic bacchanalia of Moulin Rouge. In typical Lurhmann tradition, the stories contain familiar themes: tragic lovers, missed connections, and societal and/or economic obstacles that prevent such love from blossoming. The visual spectacle is captivating, excelling at what Luhrmann does best — elevating his viewer to that shimmery cinematic plane where lights, color, sound and love are so bright and loud and real that it seems no strip of canvas could contain them. This is the magic that is The Great Gatsby.
Full disclosure: I’ve read The Great Gatsby only once, in harried snatches between studying for SATs and practicing lacrosse. As a result, I have absolutely no memory of reading it, despite getting an A on a six-page paper I wrote. It’s scary to think about.
For the unenlightened (or formerly enlightened) among us, The Great Gatsby tells the story of Nick Carraway, a recent Yale grad and writer who travels to New York City to pursue a career on Wall Street. He commutes to the city from a small house in a section of Long Island known as “West Egg.” Nick’s cousin, Daisy, lives across the bay along side her husband Tom Buchanan. Jay Gatsby is Nick’s decadent neighbor, known for throwing lavish parties to which the whole of New York City’s high society (along with some members of low society) find their way to.
Gatsby’s parties would put gangster rappers to shame, with enough bling, glitter, streamers and alcohol to fuel a Grammys after party. Luhrmann captures these ragers beautifully, using an ingenious and intoxicating blend of modern songs written in classic styles to convey a comparable sense of jest and revelry that is instantly familiar. Jay-Z, Beyonce and several other prominent artists comprise the soundtrack — a skillful tool employed by Lurhmann on more than one occasion to connect modern audiences to unfamiliar eras.
Through a bit of crafty networking, Gatsby learns that Nick is cousin to Daisy, with whom we infer a previous relationship took place. Using this connection to his advantage, Gatsby invites Daisy back into his life and attempts to pick up where they left off. This is the heart of the story, a tale about the dangers of living in the past, and the follies of trying to do so. This denial comes wrapped in glitzy bows and sparkling chandeliers, a quintessential testament to the majesty of the gilded age that Baz Luhrmann reinforces at every turn.
But eventually the cinematic radiance of the film fades, leaving a viewing experience that feels slackened and dull. In a more self-aware film, this would be a metaphor for the era of the times, but I’m not convinced that the film’s downshift is an intentional maneuver. We trade the lights and the music and the parties for the glaring heat of day as the consequences of nighttime hedonism become realized. As if under the weight of a bad hangover we cringe with every shrill voice and angry shout as the dream of Gatsby’s imagined life with Daisy crumbles into gritty reality.
The film beats on and we beat with it, watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire speak in hushed, flat voices. Watching as the leaves fall in Gatsby’s pool and the memories of happier times watching this movie begin to haunt us. Long phrases of Fitzgerald’s prose rain down through Nick’s narration in heavy drops. Luhrmann has never been one to shy away from incorporating original text, as the nearly line-for-line performance in Romeo + Juliet demonstrated.
This was the point at which I remembered why I forgot The Great Gatsby in the first place, blasphemous as may be to say. It’s uncertain if the emptiness we feel upon leaving the theater is the result of a hollow film or a story about a hollow life, but the question is an interesting place to start. Despite the reviews and other murmurings, Baz Luhrmann accomplishes the mission he sets out to achieve — a beautiful presentation of glitz and glamour and all of it gone much too fast, and much too soon with nothing to show for it in the end.