Published Oct 24, 2013Amidst the Blu-Ray supplemental material about fashion, dance styles and other superfluous, incidental factoids concerning '20s America, there's an extended "Greatness of Gatsby" segment, wherein the story is told of how this particular adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel came to be. Apparently, Baz Luhrmann took a trip on the transcontinental railroad a few years back, which left him with a great deal of time to listen to books on tape. While drinking a bottle of wine and listening to The Great Gatsby, he had the wild idea that he should adapt the film with his trademark aestheticism and thematic preoccupation with inherently problematic, doomed romance.
In a way, his adaptation feels like it was conceived by someone getting drunk on a train, only half paying attention to what Fitzgerald's book was aiming to convey. It has the basic outline of the original story, yet the characters are all poorly realized ciphers flouncing about exceedingly lavish sets and extravagant montages, acting as human window dressing for Luhrmann's thematically confused ode to music mash-ups and pornographic nostalgia.
Amidst the sweeping crane shots and wildly choreographed party sequences, voiceovers from the working class Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) frame the basic backdrop of the love story between the elusive Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and they ever-conflicted Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Years earlier, when Gatsby was poor, they struck up a love affair that ended when she presumably chose money over affection, marrying affluent philanderer Tom (Joel Edgerton). The story, as told by Luhrmann, is that of undying, idealistic love, with Gatsby doing the unthinkable, working his way up the American hierarchy to afford Daisy the kind of life she, and the American populous, desires.
Though Fitzgerald's dialogue was a rather scathing critique of an ethos founded on unobtainable, unsustainable dreams, with the excess of weekend parties being a metaphor for the high everyone strives for in a land of opportunity, Luhrmann is more preoccupied with what this might all look like and what soundtrack would best accompany it. Any subtext regarding the fleeting, superficial nature of material wealth is buried beneath the endless music video stylizations and tacky, over-the-top visual representation of feelings and thoughts that none of the actors are afforded the opportunity to convey through subtlety. Gatsby is a clumsy goofball, tripping around his mansion and lacking all of the debonair attributes associated with his character, left to do little more than make moony eyes at Daisy, who is never allowed to tackle her internal morality, beyond Luhrmann's cheesy reiteration of broad love triangle tropes.
What is thrown into the film to give it some modernist relevance is a bit of economic discourse. Gatsby's quick acquisition of funds stems from exploitive financing, not entirely dissimilar to the financial leveraging that led to the recent economic collapse. Being something thrown haphazardly into a story that has a more specific sense of politics fused with metaphysical questioning, this lethargic attempt at addressing an issue has a puerile, even laughable sensibility. Since Gatsby is presented as a facile hero, of sorts, his decision to screw over the working class to serve his needs gets lost in translation, merely complicating the obvious thematic focus of impossible love.
The themes, like the costumes, sets, shot composition and soundtrack, are more a potpourri of indulgence than anything coherent or considered. The Great Gatsby, like all of Luhrmann's films preceding, is shallow theatrical pap that has no understanding of the cinematic medium and even less about the human emotions thrown around haphazardly — ironically without any actual humanity. (Warner)