The last 30 minutes or so of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby are excellent. If you know the story, you probably know the point at which this happens, when the reality and chaos of a life of inconsequence finally catches up to the those who would avoid it. It is at this point that a tightness finally arrives in the storytelling, and the meandering waves of the first 100 minutes find a current capable of pulling viewers along.
It’s that first 100 minutes of the Great Gatsby that are a serious problem. Upon viewing this version, though, I’m not sure this problem can be solved. Audiences are distanced and un-involved in the lives being lived by the Buchanans, Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and all the roaring New Yorkers of West and East Egg . It’s the nature of their existence for us to be un-involved. Fitzgerald created it such, and watching it play out, in glittering 3-D with a booming hip-hop soundtrack, does not resolve this problem: vacuous is vacuous.
What makes Gatsby the novel beautiful is the language of Fitzgerald. Gatsby may be “required reading” these days, stuffing the backpacks of countless 16 year-old students asking their parents who Robert Redford is, but do not let its status as fodder for retreaded term-papers distract from the fact that, 90 years later, the Great Gatsby is a marvelous read. Gatsby is a vision of lasting, iconic images that hit square the American life lived within and without.
Thinking back to those pages and the simple yet stunning images is a pleasure; the green light and the eyes of God, the inescapable current of the future pulling the world towards its fate, post-war pre-collapse world taking in whomever comes calling, always under the watchful eyes of the oculist. Fitzgerald’s most remembered (not best) novel is rich and modern and skillfully crafted. We read it still as a nation of English students, and for good reason.
Rendered on-screen, however, Gatsby remains underwhelming. As F. Scott was (apocryphally?) told by a Hollywood producer: You can’t film adjectives. This remains true even today, under the helm of that most boldly adjectival director of the day, Baz Luhrmann.
Yet I do not fault Luhrmamn’s effort at making the glamour of the ’20s come to life with beautiful people, in the wildly colorful throwback cinema of early Hollywood. If this is the goal, Luhrmann succeeds. His Gatsby hits some high-notes that have the feel of Nicholas Ray’s old pictures. The direction is keen and with a plan efficiently executed, and captures Fitzgerald’s vision of life on the bay. Luhrmann lets his impulses roll forth, and frankly, the film looks great (though the 3-D was unnecessary). And yet for so long, I didn’t care. This problem, I now believe, is structural.
The performances are admirable, but bound by their creators to live a dull and vapid daily existence. Incapable of important contributions to the world they inhabit, of providing lasting consequence beyond bootlegging and polo-playing. Full of sound and fury, perhaps, but there is little meaning to be found in this life. As such, they fail to transfer meaningfully to the screen.
This structural difficulty is best illustrated in that coy coquette, lover of fancy boys and fancy parties, Daisy Buchanan. Daisy, who at first glance is intoxicating and warm like a fire, reveals herself to be primarily a lover of fine things and little else. In Fitzgerald’s novel Daisy has a voice “full of money.”
How can anyone transfer such a woman to the screen? Fitzgerald’s Daisy is shallow and selfish; Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is little more than drowsy.
So it is with those 100 long minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby. Everything is put together just so; and yet no one breaks through to make it matter. The great accomplishment of Luhrmann’s pretty good Gatsby is that it reminded me how great the novel is. Which I would suggest indicates the film, itself, fails.
Until that thrilling Hollywood climax, made for the movies, takes over. The cars, the crashes, the spurned lovers, and the endeavor of an entire life lost with the shrugs of careless shoulders. The unfolding of the mystery of Gatsby, his fate taken from his hands, spiraling out of his control, all under the watchful eyes of God. These are the pages of Gatsby that Luhrmann must have wanted to sink his teeth into, and he does so with aplomb. Unfortunately, this is too little, too late, as a conclusion to a long and dreary encounter in a dreary world.
(For the record, we in St. Paul, here in the middle-west, of “streetlamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark”, pretty much still enjoy this view of those living the New York life. Deal with it.)