THAT'S WHAT NICK SAYS, at the end of the party in Tom Buchanan’s New York apartment. The words are Baz Luhrmann’s, not Fitzgerald’s. In the novel Nick has hated the party, hated Tom’s shameless flaunting of his affair, and the callowness of the assembled friends. The evening has wound up with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose when she dares to say Daisy’s name, a scene Fitzgerald handles with crisp disdain, with Myrtle’s exact words and then the bloody towels on the floor all duly recorded. In the film, the bloody towels are gone; Tom’s blow to Myrtle is indexed almost in passing. What’s front and center is jazz music overlaid with Jay-Z’s rap soundtrack, exploding with the kaleidoscopic colors of the bacchanalian scene, and, of course, the stunning visual effect of the lit-up apartment windows across the street, their interiors opening up magically one by one and rising out of the façade, with the help of the 3-D technology.
Nick’s jab at the Yale club comes in the midst of all of this (he and Tom are going there for lunch before the latter decides on a whim to go see Myrtle). Luhrmann has not entirely made it up: in the novel, in the following chapter, Nick does indeed say of his dinner at the Yale Club that “for some reason it was the gloomiest event of my day.” And the Yale Club has played an even unhappier role in a short story written just one year earlier, “The Rich Boy” (1924). Fitzgerald, of course, had gone to Princeton, so the targeted school is both a private joke and a need-I-say-more shorthand, the better to make short work of Tom Buchanan, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven.”
Luhrmann’s Tom is not made short work of. Superbly played by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton, this Tom is so raw emotionally, so visibly on edge, and so sensitive to slights and hurts that we almost forget that, yes, he is indeed one of the richest men in America, a racist and a bully. He has more in common with Gatsby than we think, a point dramatized by their remarkably similar behavior while at the wheel of that yellow Rolls-Royce. He is an in insider who has never been able to internalize that state, perhaps because it is not anyone’s to internalize in this movie. It is not just Nick, and not just Gatsby, who is perched, voyeuristically and revealingly, both within and without. That revealing voyeurism is Tom’s as well: even as he obsessively watches others, that very process subjects him to the camera’s recessional probe, pulling up dimensions of vulnerability and exposing them to view, over and over again.
Luhrmann lingers long over that process (unlike the slender novel, the film is 2 hours and 23 minutes), and with more tenderness than one would think possible. He is probably the only director who would tell this jazz age story this way, with this particular distribution of emotional charge. The film was made in Australia; along with Joel Edgerton there are two other Australian actors in lead roles (Elizabeth Debecki as Jordan Baker and Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson). Luhrmann had planned on shooting in New York, but was lured back to Sydney by a 40 percent “producer offset” offered by Screen Australia, a federal agency. The location and the cast were fine for him — he had always conceived of jazz as a phenomenon as significant outside the United States as within. His previous film, Australia (2008), also had a jazz soundtrack, performed by the Ralph Pyle big band, with clarinet solos by Andy Firth. It somehow made sense — that jazz should be the baseline, the sonic horizon and outer limit, for a movie by an Australian director, by this Australian director.
Baz Luhrmann was born Mark Anthony Luhrmann and raised in Herons Creek, New South Wales, a town with 11 houses; his father ran a gas station. Over the years he has more or less remade himself (like Gatsby, he changed his name), but Herons Creek has not completely receded either. And, from the standpoint of Herons Creek, every emanation from the Jazz Age, from 1920s America, has got to be unimaginably fascinating, to be gleaned only through visual hyperboles, through a surfeit of signs. Gatsby epitomizes this. But Tom Buchanan belongs there too. And so, too, do those gathered in that New York apartment. Maybe even the Yale Club itself. The over-the-top, surreal realism of the carnival is a tribute to each of these, each the stuff dreams are made of.
The Great Gatsby is usually remembered for capturing the general spirit of a very spirited age. But in fact, Fitzgerald’s slim novel rather deliberately limits itself to a particular time and place, with most of its plot set squarely in the middle of 1922. Nick’s catalog of Gatsby’s guests is written on a conveniently dated train schedule: 7-5-22. The music at the novel’s last party, meanwhile, is “a neat sad little waltz of that year” called “Three o’Clock in the Morning,” an actual pop hit from an actual summer. Why not 1921, or 1923? According to one theory, Fitzgerald was looking for a way to associate his 1925 novel with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, both of which were published in the same auspicious year and had made 1922 the pinnacle of literary modernism. Perhaps Fitzgerald knew he’d written a masterpiece — Eliot did, and told him so.
And then there’s Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which turns history into a swirling, impossible hallucination. Yes, Tobey Maguire’s Nick has a copy of Ulysses in his cottage and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby invites a period-specific Broadway star to his mansion, but perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how flagrantly and provocatively anachronistic it is. This is the Jazz Age in a remix and mash-up culture. Jay-Z provides a 21st-century soundtrack on more than one occasion, his rapping every bit as jarring as the Converse sneakers and post-punk in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. The contemporary chanteuse Lana Del Rey — a product of YouTube — drifts around in time, giving a performance that sounds like her internet-era ones until it modulates into an old-timey foxtrot. Even the film’s 1920s music can sound a bit strained, as when George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue plays two years too soon over Gatsby’s spectroscopic gayety.
This Gatsby isn’t only a collision of then and now — it’s a pop cultural vortex, and the entire 20th century is getting pulled in. The Harlem setting of Tom Buchanan’s love nest looks back on — or perhaps anticipates — the album art for Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti (1975) and Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson (a 1971 jazz-rock salute to a 1910s prizefighter). The Manhattan speakeasy where Nick meets Meyer Wolfsheim shares dancers with a Paris club in the French New Wave film Le cercle rouge (1970). A line of dialogue and an underwater shot of Gatsby’s corpse allude to Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of the most allusive and history-conscious movies ever made. The anachronistic sounds and images are so striking and so frequent that they don’t distract from Luhrmann’s treatment of the 1920s, exactly — the anachronism is the treatment.
We could decide that this is yet another specimen of weightless postmodern pastiche, compare Luhrmann’s Gatsby to Quentin Tarantino’s artfully sloppy historical films, and be done with it. But we might also conclude that Luhrmann has found a unique way to address what was surely one of the project’s greatest challenges, namely, responding to the inevitable criticism that his movie couldn’t possibly get Fitzgerald’s novel “right.” The very first shot establishes the antique quality of the subject matter and then refuses to respect it: a flickering, black-and-white title sequence with tinny monophonic music gives way to 3-D patterning and multichannel sound. From there, the movie speeds through its exposition in hyperactive, quick-cutting, surreally colorful sequences whose landscapes owe much to video game design and whose car trips recall chase scenes from the Star Wars films (not the older ones, unfortunately). Luhrmann sometimes mixes in saturated, herky-jerky film reels of doughboys and flappers for period flair, but he always follows them up with CGI and virtuosic camera movement to prevent the history from becoming too settled.
The film’s aesthetic has annoyed many viewers, but it’s strangely liberating to watch an adaptation of Gatsby that encourages its audience to think about the future as much as the past. It often seems that Luhrmann doesn’t especially care for these characters from 1922, and instead wants to showcase the trends and forces and dynamics that this long-gone generation would set in motion for decades to come. When the jazz vanishes from the Jazz Age and gets replaced by hip-hop, for example, there’s a glitch but also harmony, a reminder that the former would eventually lead to the latter. From there, it’s not hard to see that Luhrmann is also interested — just as Tom warily is — in the “intermarriage between black and white” that would come to define the American century, even if the film can only demonstrate that intermarriage in terms of art. So too is the film about an accelerating car culture, and about the expansion of finance capitalism, and about a polluted world where “the sun’s getting hotter every year,” and about the triumph of the movies, of course. Other versions of Gatsby have captured the novel and its details more faithfully, but this may be the only one that approaches it as a myth that can be reshaped and suited, as myths usually are, for the future days in which they’re remembered.
Being ahistorical isn’t the same thing as being timeless. Jay-Z’s “100$ Bill” is a disorienting presence in the film now, but audiences to come will probably regard its dubstep production as a dated, quintessentially 2010 sound. Luhrmann’s flashy 3-D rendering of the silent film era might eventually age in similar ways, coming to look less shocking and more like an early 21st-century novelty. But that’s no matter, for Fitzgerald’s famous, deeply paradoxical final meditation in The Great Gatsby understands Americans to be a people who pursue “an orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” even while being “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” If Luhrmann’s unsettling, contemporary take on a nearly century-old classic eventually drifts into history as well, it will be a fitting tribute to the novel indeed.
Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby is not an ignorant movie. Clearly Luhrmann or his co-scriptwriter Craig Pearce knows something about Fitzgerald’s fiction. So one is puzzled to explain why at so many moments in its 143-minute running time it is such a stupid movie, why at so many points it makes a nod to some aspect of the novel and then unimaginatively mangles it on screen.
In adapting Fitzgerald’s book, Luhrmann and Pearce faced the same basic problem that the novel’s three previous film adaptations faced, and like those previous adaptations the present one doesn’t know how to solve it, though Luhrmann’s film at least indicates that he knows what that basic problem is. In most novels the protagonist and the main character are the same person, but in another class of novels, like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, these roles are filled by two different people — while Gatsby is the protagonist, Nick Carraway is the main character. The whole emotional point of Fitzgerald’s novel is the psychological and spiritual impact on Nick of Nick’s becoming involved enough in Gatsby’s life to understand the protagonist and his imaginative quest better than anyone else in the novel (even including Gatsby himself), and then to write that understanding as a kind of ultimate redemption of Gatsby and their friendship. By beginning the film with Nick recovering from alcoholism in a sanitarium, where he is writing Gatsby’s story as a kind of therapy, Luhrmann and Pearce suggest that they understand the centrality of Nick to the story, understand that where Daisy is Gatsby’s romantic illusion, Gatsby is Nick’s romantic illusion, that where Gatsby wants to possess Daisy, Nick wants to be Gatsby, wants to possess Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness,” his “gorgeous” imagination. And where Gatsby is disillusioned by Daisy and dies, Nick is disillusioned by the failure of Gatsby’s quest and his death and yet lives, marked for life. And indeed Luhrmann and Pearce also demonstrate here a broader knowledge of Fitzgerald’s fiction, for though this scenario of the narrator recovering in a sanitarium and writing the story doesn’t occur in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it was what Fitzgerald had planned to use in his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon where the narrator, Cecelia Brady, would write the story of Monroe Stahr while she was recovering in a sanitarium from a mental and physical breakdown.
But Luhrmann’s film, like its predecessors, never solves the basic problem of depicting Nick as the main character, because once the director casts the star actor in the role of Gatsby and an actor of less prominence or dramatic gravitas in the role of Nick, it sets up a fatal imbalance from which the film never recovers. Tobey Maguire may be a perfectly fine actor, but he comes across in this film as a juvenile, and what is important for the working of the story is that Nick be a serious person, a substantial person, in effect, an adult, whose good opinion means something both to Gatsby and the film’s viewers, for the key moment in the movie is when Nick gives Gatsby his unconditional absolution the last time he sees him: “They’re a rotten crowd […] You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” — a judgment that though it may use the language of, and sound at first like, a monetary evaluation is in fact a spiritual evaluation. When Sam Waterston playing Nick delivered that line in Jack Clayton’s 1974 film version of Gatsby (with a script by Francis Ford Coppola), his performance had established both Nick’s seriousness and his initial skepticism about Gatsby, so that when he paid Gatsby that final compliment, it meant something, it confirmed for the viewer Nick’s special sense of Gatsby’s imaginative “greatness.” Though Luhrmann may have understood the problem caused by casting the star actor as Gatsby, he probably could not have convinced the studio or the star to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Nick, or to cast a star of equal magnitude to DiCaprio (say a Matt Damon or Ben Affleck) as Nick. And of course since the movie is called The Great Gatsby it would probably require too great a stretch in the mass movie-going public’s imagination to accept anyone other than the male star in the title role, and thus too great a risk for the film’s advertising and marketing to that public.
If one were to list the stupid moments in the film, moments reflecting the director’s and/or screen writers’ wrong-headed decisions, the list would be almost interminable. The first half of the movie, which concentrates on depicting Gatsby’s possessions, his lavish lifestyle, his parties, is ludicrous. It is so over-the-top that it looks like the aftermath of an explosion in an Art Deco factory. An experienced film viewer with a memory that goes back further than 10 years knows that when a film places so much emphasis on what Hollywood calls “production values” (lavish sets, 3-D color, special effects, a soundtrack that mixes 1920s recordings with contemporary hip-hop) someone somewhere (either the studio or the filmmaker) has lost faith either in the human value of its story to move the audience or in the emotional maturity or empathy of that audience.
Here are some of the dumbest moments in the movie:
1. The drunken party in Manhattan at the apartment Tom Buchanan keeps for Myrtle Wilson becomes in Luhrmann’s version something resembling an ancient orgy in a C. B. DeMille film.
2. The actress who plays Myrtle is made up and costumed in such an extravagantly trashy manner that when the final encounter comes between Myrtle and Gatsby’s Duesenberg, the viewer is rooting for the Duesenberg. In the Clayton version, Myrtle was played by Karen Black, whose performance of the role conveyed not just Myrtle’s commonness but also her human longing for something better.
3. Who knew that Meyer Wolfsheim (whom Fitzgerald based on Arnold Rothstein) was either born in India or of Indian descent? But the actor who plays him in Luhrmann’s version, Amitabh Bachchan, is so clearly Indian that the people sitting around me in the theater laughed out loud when Gatsby introduced him to Nick as Meyer Wolfsheim. It couldn’t have gotten a bigger laugh if Gatsby had introduced him as Paddy O’Rourke. In Clayton’s 1974 version the actor who played Wolfsheim was the admirable Howard da Silva, whose performance along with Sam Waterston’s as Nick was one of the few bright spots in a dreary movie, though not as dreary a one as Luhrmann’s.
4. The character of the diffident freeloader Ewing Klipspringer, who plays “The Love Nest” on Gatsby’s grand piano when Gatsby gives Nick and Daisy a tour of his house, is transformed in the film into someone with the frenetic fluidity of one of the toons in Who Killed Roger Rabbit? The grand piano is transformed into a Wurlitzer organ that is two stories high and more suited to the old Paramount theater than a Long Island mansion. This frenetically fluid toon also sings and dances at the first Gatsby party Nick attends.
5. The character of Slagle is transformed from a voice on the phone, who mistakes Nick for Gatsby and tells him that young Parke has been arrested for trying to cash in stolen bonds, into a gangster who shows up with his mob at Gatsby’s last party, is forcibly ejected, and then beaten up by several of Gatsby’s waiters at the gates of the mansion.
6. At several points in the film there are montages of front page newspaper headlines that ask who this mysterious Gatsby is, and news stories showing his picture and asking where and how he made his wealth. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is at great pains to make the local celebrity of his parties just great enough so that Daisy in East Egg will hear his name mentioned or wander into one of his events, but not so well known that the newspapers will become interested in him and ferret out the story of his association with Wolfsheim and bootlegging. The high level of newspaper attention that the film depicts Gatsby as attracting would vitiate the sense of the confrontation scene at the Plaza Hotel when Tom reveals to Daisy what he has learned about Gatsby’s business dealings, for clearly this comes as a complete revelation to Daisy — which it would not have done if the newspapers had been full of it.
I could go on indefinitely. Though individually these instances of dumbness might not seem that damaging, considering the overwhelming number of them in the film, they reveal a depressing pattern: it is one thing for a mature artist to depict the vulgarity of a fictional character, while it is a far different thing for an essentially juvenile artist with a vulgar imagination to try to depict a fictional character. Virtually every character in Luhrmann’s film has been coarsened from its original in the novel, so that we end up less with human beings than caricatures, almost cartoon figures, until one wonders why, among the film’s carload of “production values,” they didn’t include animation (probably because the word “animation” derives from the Latin word meaning “soul,” and this film is relentlessly about gaudy surfaces that lack any interior depth). Perhaps Luhrmann and Pearce were led astray by Nick’s comment about the youthful Jay Gatsby, that his quest involved “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a 17-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” But the whole point of Gatsby’s endeavor, once Nick meets him, is precisely Gatsby’s growing awareness of the vulgarity of West Egg, his sense that Daisy is repulsed by the commonness of the people present at the Gatsby party she and Tom attend, and thus his sense that if he wants to move into the world of East Egg society and win Daisy back, he must shed that vulgarity, must use his friend Nick’s background and social expertise to train him in the customs and accepted usages of Daisy’s world. One particularly savage review of the film described it as being made not for children but for idiots. I would describe it as a film made for 17-year-olds, for mental and emotional adolescents of any age — which seems to be the target audience of so many Hollywood films today — and that the kind of people who think that Luhrmann is an interesting director are the kind who think Quentin Tarantino is an auteur.
But let Fitzgerald have the last word. In one of the Pat Hobby stories, “Boil Some Water — Lots of It,” the down-at-heels screenwriter Pat Hobby describes his sense of outrage when, in the studio commissary, an extra presumes to sit down at the lunch table reserved for the studio big shots: “It was as if someone had crayoned Donald Duck into ‘The Last Supper.’” I think that is the reaction any fan of Fitzgerald’s novel will have to this movie, which is to say, don’t futz around with a national treasure because there are lots of 17-year-olds who haven’t yet read Fitzgerald’s novel and it would be a shame for them to be put off of The Great Gatsby by this tawdry film.
One of the strangest things about Baz Luhrmann’s spectacle is that it really does seem to be in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sad, beautiful little novel. Most of the dialogue is taken right from the book, and the filmmakers use the lamest of all cinematic tricks, the voiceover, to bring in long reveries in prose by Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway. In the movie’s conceit, the ex-bond trader, suffering from alcoholism, insomnia, and other maladies of the spirit, has repaired to a treatment facility in the Midwest. His therapist, a grandfatherly amateur gardener, encourages Carraway to do some writing. Why not? It might soothe his nerves. Following the doctor’s advice, our narrator begins to recall a summer of mystery and dissolution in jazz-age New York City. And thus, improbably, Luhrmann’s fantastic carnival of a 3-D movie turns out to be, in part, a story about the typing and correction of a manuscript. In the recollection of violence and loss, a lovely book is made.
But love, in The Great Gatsby, is not the same as fidelity. What gets loved is some distortion of the object, some projection of the self. And Luhrmann does take a few liberties with the text. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have, but in a movie that otherwise stays so close to its source, in substance if not in style, small changes are conspicuous. I noticed, for instance, that Luhrmann left out two of my favorite passages: the ones where Carraway and Gatsby talk about Daisy Buchanan’s voice. In the first, Carraway is asking himself what Gatsby likes so much about this girl. It’s a tough question! He comes around to this answer: “I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed — that voice was a deathless song.” In this line, as elsewhere, Carraway imagines himself as a kind of analyst, interpreting Gatsby’s desire. He concludes that Gatsby hears, in Daisy’s voice, a living presence, which is not his own invention, not “over-dreamed” but real, essential, belonging to his beloved and justifying his extravagant devotion.
Meanwhile Fitzgerald, behind the scenes, is plotting to show how Carraway’s interpretation is itself an invention, casting his own fantasies, like shadows, onto the screen of Gatsby’s character. When Gatsby hears Daisy’s voice, as a matter of fact, he doesn’t hear a deathless song. In the second of my favorite passages, he gives his own account: “Her voice is full of money.” Now here is a demystifying interpretation. All of the fluctuating, feverish, immortal music that Carraway wants to hear, or wants Gatsby to be hearing, in Daisy’s voice — all that glitter is exposed as the naked appeal of cash. It’s not Daisy herself. Daisy herself is just a cipher. She is the medium through which money becomes so gorgeous and so feminized that men begin to dream about possessing it in a permanent way (rather than, say, exchanging it or spending it). And Gatsby, of all people, is the one who knows the secret.
When Fitzgerald attributed this insight to his title character, he did something perverse and wonderful. Thanks to Carraway’s willfully romanticized depiction — which, strange to say, colors the film even more strongly than it shapes the novel — we tend to think of Gatsby as a dreamer, a figure of innocence and hope. We are invited to see him as a tragic hero who wishes to recapture lost time. But when he gives his own appraisal of what he is after, when he says that Daisy’s voice is full of money, he shows that he is nothing of the kind. He is just the opposite: he is the most cynical man in the book. And that’s why, in the end, it is Gatsby himself, even more than the caricaturized shylock Meyer Wolfsheim, who has to be disavowed and despised. There are lots men and women in The Great Gatsby who understand, more or less, that money makes the world go around. Some of them learned it in poverty. Some of them learned it at Yale. But Gatsby is the only one who says it out loud, the only one whose life story testifies to the fact. And therefore everybody turns away from him. Everybody, anyway, except for Carraway, way off in Minnesota, conjuring an unreal Gatsby.
Fitzgerald’s characters are notoriously shallow creatures, but one way to make sense of the story is to understand each of them as building a particular dream world on the repression of Jay Gatsby’s cynical truth. For Tom Buchanan, the fantasy is the bigotry of race and class: he thinks that social stratification is a matter of blood, not cash. Luhrmann’s movie makes the most of Buchanan’s buff elitism. In the climactic scene, Gatsby asserts that the two rivals are equals, since they have the same amount of money, and the Yale man humiliates “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” by insisting that there is a “difference” between them. Gatsby takes the bait, raising his fist and losing, for a crucial moment, his practiced “cool.” But what, finally, is the substance of the difference? One rich man has bought a stately house that belonged to an oil tycoon; the other has bought a fairy-tale castle across the bay. One has polo grounds; the other has a swimming pool. One drives a blue car; the other drives a yellow one. The movie, like the book, makes these distinctions seem significant. Luhrmann seizes certain styles (retro, hip-hop, indie rock) in the magic hour of their ascension from subcultures to the mass market. But the very weight given to these matters of taste shows how inescapably The Great Gatsby is situated within the new world of consumer capitalism, not in the waning days of any feudal aristocracy. You might as well try to erect a caste system on the difference in preference between Coke and Pepsi.
As for Carraway, with his dopey grin and his literary ambitions, his love for Gatsby depends on other distortions. Think of the elaborate party scenes in the film. (These are about as good as the recent ads for Heineken, directed by Fredrik Bond. The rest of the movie is worse). It takes Tom Buchanan to explain that the parties are really schemes for social mixing, occasions for Wolfsheim’s gangsters to gain access to politicians and respected businessmen. These events belong to a new kind of entertainment culture that blurs the boundary between the hustlers and legitimate power. Carraway, though, persists in dreaming that the parties are an attempt to lure Daisy into Gatsby’s presence, to draw her like a moth to his shimmering lights. Of all the drunks, queens, swindlers, and opportunists in the house, the bond trader is the only one who feels sentimental about these hallucinatory carnivals. Carraway’s most romantic dream, in short, is that of a love so pure that it stands in defiance of the economy. And just as Carraway indulges in this escapist fantasy of true love, Luhrmann ends up idealizing a perfect, unspoiled literature.
At the end of Fitzgerald’s book, Carraway rides a train out of New York. What is this “Middle West” into which he has decided to withdraw? Is there no capitalism in that hinterland? At the end of the movie, the same character finishes writing his story. He changes the title from “Gatsby” to “The Great Gatsby.” He places the manuscript into a box. He closes the lid. The writing is done, but it hasn’t been turned into a book for sale. (It might never be — the analyst has suggested to Nick that he could burn the pages.) And in this strange, quaint way, with a glimpse of a work of memory and imagination that has not yet been bound for circulation, the spectacle ends.