The Luhrmann Razzle-Dazzle
Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" delivers big stars and cinematic flash, but misses F. Scott Fitzgerald's elegance and depth of feeling.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose in The Great Gatsby comes off the page effortlessly and enters the consciousness like the scent of a $1,000 an ounce perfume. Or it’s like meringue, so light and full of air, yet rich, memorable and always desirable. Images from it linger from generation to generation and have become part of the universal consciousness. But to make a film of it is quite a challenge. Many will regard Baz Luhrmann’s new Gatsby as a failure before they have even given it a chance.
Luhrmann has turned The Great Gatsby into a graphic novel. The design is so prominent, the characters are so clearly – almost comically – drawn, and the energy at Gatsby’s endless parties is so titanic that you want to pull away. But Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, draws us onward. Maguire’s innocence and his proper Midwestern politeness are all over his face, but his eyes reveal a need for danger, a curiosity and a lust that tempt us to join him in the wild ride.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s still-boyish good looks and his Hollywood charm are the perfect Gatsby: Gatsby the ideal, the American dream, up from poverty by will and guile to the top of the world no matter the means. But as an actor, DiCaprio comes up wanting when the dream is shattered.
Luhrmann lets him down at the end. He lets us all down. It feels as if he took so much time at the party and left us no time to breath in the desolate air when the party is over. After the violence of death, Fitzgerald’s novel begins sounding a very different note. Luhrmann leaves no time to feel the isolation, the desolation, the emptiness of abandonment. He’s still dancing as fast as he can. He never gives us the moment of recognition we require that Fitzgerald, the great storyteller, knows we need. He gives us the text, right there on the screen. But the depth of the feeling is missing amid the glamour.