Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby goes to extraordinary lengths to remind you that it is, in fact, based on a very, very great novel, but this reverence for the source material (and its author) belies the subtle shifts in emphasis Luhrmann’s film adaptation makes, transforming Fitzgerald’s somewhat bitter look at the failure of the American dream into a considerably more spectacular and romantic (that is, more “Hollywood”) event film.
As far as event films go, Gatsby is a pretty good one, presenting a welcome reprieve from the humdrum action movies and bland comedies that have come to mark the summer movie season. Luhrmann’s grasp on the Hollywood epic has not always been sure (see Australia), but he has always been infatuated with classic Hollywood’s penchant for big spectacle, big stars, and big emotions. Gatsby mostly delivers all three.
Luhrmann has certainly dialed back his prankster tendencies for Gatsby, so it’s not as delightfully raucous or frantic as Moulin Rouge!, even if they share many images (the party scenes in Gatsby play like slightly more lethargic excerpts from Moulin), and when Luhrmann does indulge himself, there’s the sense of a kind of listlessness to it (with a few notable exceptions, including an inspired surreal segment featuring Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway stunned by the immensity of life in New York City). The use of Jay-Z on the soundtrack is neither very inspiring nor particularly obtrusive, and so it seems gratuitous, a sign of unnecessary strain to make Gatsby hip, while the vibrance and energy of Luhrmann’s style is sufficient to give the material a contemporary edge.
Luhrmann renders Gatsby’s manufactured world with lavish, luxurious detail: Gatsby’s dream is one Luhrmann sympathizes with and shares. This enthusiasm puts the film at odds with Fitzgerald’s sad and cynical novel; Fitzgerald found Gatsby’s dream intrinsically hollow, but Luhrmann finds it impressive, a tragic dream only because it is impossible.
This distinction takes root in the substantial difference between the novel’s Daisy and the film’s Daisy, who, as the object of Gatsby’s quest, is also the embodiment of it. Fitzgerald’s flighty, airless Daisy, all sheen and no substance, could not support the weight of Gatsby’s desire and expectation. Luhrmann’s Daisy, portrayed with grace by the effervescent Carey Mulligan, has all of the character’s necessary beauty, but also an inner resolve and sincerity that gives the character a new weight.Her Daisy isn’t heartless, just trapped in difficult circumstances with no clear escape route.
Gatsby’s crime, in Luhrmann’s eyes, is not that he desires Daisy, but that he desires her too selfishly; she can be only his, and only on his terms. This dynamic is evident from the first scene Gatsby and Daisy share together (possibly the finest scene in the film), which Gatsby nearly suffocates under his attempts to manufacture the perfect moment. If the couple’s genuine affection allows them to survive that moment, they’re clearly running on borrowed time, and their subsequent time together is handled by Luhrmann with an overdose of languorous melancholy (with Lana Del Rey’s interminable song, “Young and Beautiful,” layered over the scenes with numbing repetition).
When their relationship fails, and Gatsby meets his demise (with a nice embellishment on Fitzgerald’s scenario), Luhrmann elegizes him as a failed conqueror. This hagiography works only because of DiCaprio, who effortlessly embodies all of Gatsby’s contradictions and peculiarities in his body language, which is controlled, but betrays hints of desperation and nervousness, and who imbues Gatsby with overwhelming charisma and charm. His Gatsby is a luminous presence: a great man, if not a good one.