In his first appearance in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, Jay Gatsby is glimpsed in the darkness, staring out over the Bay that separates Long Island's West and East Eggs, at a flashing green light on the opposite shore where his old flame Daisy now lives. Gatsby is pining for lost love – for the elusive object of adoration whom he hopes, with his ill-gotten lucre and hard-won status, to win back across a gulf not just of space, but of time, class and idealising fantasy. It's possible that Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) felt something similar when he decided to turn the cherished novel to film. An outsider like Gatsby, dreaming an American dream, Luhrmann reaches out nostalgically with his big budget and vulgar vision to bring Fitzgerald's prose to life, even if it is a love affair doomed from the start.
The doomed nature of Luhrmann's efforts may even, in part at least, be the film's theme. Here the novel's narrator Nick Carraway is cast, in an invented frame story, as its author too, bashing out his anguished memoirs as therapy at a rehabilitation clinic – and yet, as Nick (Tobey Maguire) warns Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), "You can't repeat the past." With cinema, it's a case of new game, old sport – and for all Luhrmann's apparent fetishisation of Fitzgerald's text, whether spoken by Nick (Tobey Maguire) in extended voice-overs or flashed as cascading letters across the screen, as a filmmaker Luhrmann must inevitably adapt (or die), and so he cuts out a storyline here (Nick's affair with Jordan Baker, the late arrival of Gatsby's father), adds an odd detail there (Nick now "likes to watch"), and generally truncates a plot that still feels overextended on the big screen. Meanwhile he plays to cinema's strengths, throwing in his trademark spectacles of colourful kitsch in much the way that Gatsby tosses about his silk tailored shirts.
Maguire's Nick Carraway, and DiCaprio's Gatsby.
Nick adds 'THE GREAT' in handwritten capitals over the title 'GATSBY' typed on his completed manuscript. Luhrmann has a similar predilection for grand flourishes, using every trick in his repertoire to make this story larger than life. Even 3D, however, cannot conceal the essential flatness of the characters in Luhrmann's cartoonish spin on his source. Though Gatsby takes his final, prescribed plunge into the deep end, he still seems to be wading in the shallows, as DiCaprio and his fellow cast, reduced to superficial gestures, are repeatedly outclassed by the film's lavish production design. This is a modern movie with silent-era acting, much as it mixes '20s jazz with Beyoncé, Amy Winehouse and hip-hop. Luhrmann is, to quote the final line, "borne back ceaselessly into the past." Gatsby falls victim ultimately to his own postmodernism, looking at once backwards and forwards.
All filmmakers dream of getting their green light. Yet having got his, Luhrmann refashions a much-loved classic into something that, though ambitious, comes tinged with a sense of emptiness and disappointment – much like Gatsby himself.
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