I’ve been awaiting the arrival of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for many months with the same giddy excitement that I used to reserve for the Eurovision Song Contest. I’d be hoping for some Abba-esque flash of brilliance, all the time knowing deep down that my enjoyment would be of the cruel and camp variety, gazing on open-mouthed as a bunch of hapless mannequins staggered through ineptly choreographed routines to shudderingly banal music; and there would probably be a clown or two. As such, Gatsby is a disappointment. As an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, it’s not atrocious enough to be funny but it’s certainly not brilliant either; as a movie in its own right, it’s quite interesting. And Bonnie Tyler’s not in it.
To run through the basics, Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce stick to the basic plot pretty faithfully, with the exception of a framing narrative which had Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recounting the story from a drying-out clinic; more of that later. A kid writing a book report having only watched this version would at least scrape a pass. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby is rather good, convincingly swinging between insouciant bonhomie at his bacchanalian parties and quasi-teenage gawkiness as he awaits the reunion with Daisy. Maguire, by contrast, is awful, depicting Nick as a one-note klutz, his Wall Street suit-and-bowtie get-up only reinforcing his resemblance to Pee-Wee Herman. Carey Mulligan can’t do much with the impossible role of Daisy although she does have the acting chops to remind you what a fickle cow the character is; and she looks nice, which helps.
Indeed, the whole film looks nice, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from Luhrmann. The party scenes are suitably brash and energetic (with inevitable nods to Cabaret and Chicago) and some of the big, swooping shots across Manhattan and the yearning gap across the water that separates Gatsby’s mansion from the Buchanans’ place are proper heart-in-mouth stuff. They make good use of the 3D format but elsewhere Luhrmann seems compelled – as do most directors who appropriate this stupid, expensive gimmick – to get his money’s worth. So we get champagne corks and footballs hurled in our general direction, lit cigars and the tumbling characters of Carraway’s typescript; all embodying the paradox that a process that is supposed to make a movie more real, more lifelike only reminds us of the artificiality of the form.
Which, oddly enough, is where things get interesting. Because 3D demands these big scenes, the characters often seem like figures in a diorama, or the inhabitants of a dolls’ house. When Gatsby’s nerve breaks and Carraway snaps, “You’re acting like a little boy”, the viewer can’t forget that, as good as DiCaprio may be, yes, he is still acting – the scene comes over like a high school production of a Noël Coward scene. The film doesn’t find the emotional heart of the novel (the most moving moment in the book, the appearance of Gatsby’s father at the end, is missing) but Luhrmann’s not trying to do that. Instead, he’s taken the most essential component of the main character’s story, the sense of desperate reinvention and pretence, and extrapolated it into a whole movie. It’s postmodernism, stupid.
So we get the nods Hollywood’s past intimations that success and fame don’t bring happiness. DiCaprio’s boyish confidence has more than a little Charles Foster Kane about it and his home is Xanadu; his final exhalation of “Daisy” may as well be “Rosebud”. And then he is found floating, not on a mattress as in the novel, but face down, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. Some of the other cultural tips of the hat are more clunky, and seem to play fast and loose with reality. Carraway has a copy of Ulysses, which was published in Paris in February, 1922, so it’s just about feasible that a copy may have evaded the attention of the US censors and made it to him by the summer of that year, when the story is apparently set. But Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue didn’t appear until two years later, so rather than being a useful period detail it feels as if Luhrmann just asked for something familiar and 1920s-y to fill in a gap.
Amitabh Bachchan as the racketeer Meyer Wolfshiem. When Pete Postlethwaite browned up and took a Japanese name in The Usual Suspects it made no sense until you realised the whole story was an off-the-cuff spiel by a master deceiver. Could Wolfshiem be Indian? Yes, if Luhrmann/Carraway becomes Keyser Söze and wants it to be so. It’s just a story, after all.
So how can we explain Luhrmann’s Gatsby? Well, not really by reference to the original novel, or to previous adaptations thereof. Nor to Hollywood’s previous ruminations about the downside of riches, or even to its depictions of the Jazz Age and all its debaucheries. Baz has cherrypicked them all, but with a level of discretion and decorum that may surprise his detractors and none of them tells the whole story. No, the closest connection I can see is with a British movie, one that failed as an adaptation of a beloved book, that didn’t even bother to depict the time in which it was set, but later came to be seen as a wry satire on the culture and society that prevailed at the time it was made. And it had some fun party scenes. Luhrmann won’t thank me, but his Gatsby is a kindred spirit to Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners. I wonder what that would have been like in 3D...
PS: Oh hell. I’ve just realised that the gap between 1959 (when Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners was published) and 1986 (when the film appeared) is the same as the gap between 1986 and now.