‘The Great Gatsby’ Debate: Is Baz Luhrmann’s Film Genius or Rubbish?
For the uninitiated, the film is set at the height of the Roaring ‘20s—a time of glitz, glamour, and illegal booze. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a struggling bond trader who rents a summer cottage next to the mysterious mega-rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the Long Island coast. The enigmatic Gatsby throws over-the-top weekly parties, which we later learn are to attract the attention of Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan)—a socialite Gatsby is hopelessly in love with. Unfortunately for him, Daisy is married to the brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a classist, racist old-money scoundrel who cheats on her with the working class Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). Gatsby, with the help of Carraway, attempts to rekindle his romance with Daisy.
Many critics have faulted the film for its stylistic excesses—a staple of Luhrmann’s oeuvre (see: Moulin Rouge!)—while praising the acting performances. The Daily Beast’s fashion editor Isabel Wilkinson and culture writer/editor Marlow Stern debate whether Gatsby is worth your time (and money).
Isabel: All right, Marlow. So by now everyone knows that you hated Gatsby, “an operatic blunder,” as you called it. There are a few things I’ll hand to you: I agree it was rather insane to bookend the movie with Nick Carraway narrating from a sanitarium. What! But this is Baz Luhrmann and you—especially you—knew what you were getting into when you walked into that theater. You knew this would be razzle-dazzle, filled with glitter and popping bottles and Jay-Z. You were prepared to hate it, as was most of the world. And for the record, so was I. But this is a movie about a culture of excess—and you have to allow a filmmaker a margin to communicate that concept of excess through non-traditional avenues, such as curlicue letters filled with pink flowers exploding on-screen. To me, it’s a powerful story that I thought could never be done justice on film—and maybe it can’t be. But this Gatsby comes mighty close.
Marlow: It was indeed batty to bookend the film with Nick Carraway narrating from a sanitarium, as opposed to having him end up in the Midwest, like the novel. Framing the film this way drains the story of its central message: the empire is crumbling, so pack up your things and head out West, for that is the “salt of the earth.” I took similar issue with Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, which also got too wrapped up in its design, costuming, and pointless play-within-a-movie conceit and lost sight of the social commentary. But I digress. While I did have major reservations about The Great Gatsby because of Luhrmann, I was hopeful that it’d be engaging thanks to the tremendous cast he’d assembled. His last film with Leonardo DiCaprio, Romeo + Juliet, was greatly elevated by the tremendous turns by DiCaprio and Claire Danes, which allowed the film to transcend its bizarre vatos-in-Venice milieu. But Gatsby was, at two hours and 40 minutes, a colossal bore. The razzle-dazzle was entirely monotonous. I get that that’s sort of the point, to depict these nouveau riche hangers-on as zombies, but none of it even appeared real. Thanks to the CGI and the 3-D, the actors looked as if they were operating in an entirely fake environment—like Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake—that bears no resemblance to the Roaring ‘20s. And the music, with the exception of the songs by Lana Del Rey and The xx, is awful.
Isabel: Are you implying that the acting wasn’t good enough? Because I couldn’t disagree more. Here, the cast saved the day. What could have been a frilly flop was given weight by DiCaprio and Mulligan, and Maguire, too. DiCaprio, as even you admit in your flamer of a review, was a joy to watch, and Mulligan emoted in her signature tears-in-her-eyes, dialogue-less kind of way (hello, Drive). Not only did they carry the film, they looked pretty damn good doing it: frankly, the image of Leo in that jaunty straw hat, tan suit, and spectators—slick blond hair parted neatly to one side—in that yellow car was exactly what I, subliminally, have always wanted Gatsby to look like. Similarly, I appreciated so much that they avoided the traditional flapper route both for Daisy and so many other women in the ensemble. (I think I’ve been scarred by too many Gatsby-themed parties from my college years. Those cheap sparking headbands with feathers and long, knotted strands of fake pearls, don’t get me started!) But Mulligan’s Daisy was dream-like, floating around in those sparkling Prada dresses. And sorry, but even Jordan Baker oozed a detached cool in that loose golf wear. The costumes were perfect, they really were. Now onto your blasphemous claim about the music. Before seeing Gatsby, I would have agreed with you: it’s heinous and almost never successful when you insert contemporary music into a period movie. And I’ll admit, there were times in Gatsby when the music felt choppy: you were constantly aware of it, whereas I’m of the belief that movie music should just wash over you and make you feel something without ever realizing you’re listening to the soundtrack. That being said, the music here was just so good—rap, as Luhrmann says, is now what jazz was then! Haha. But seriously, other than that stupid Fergie song in the central party scene, I liked the jazzy version of “Crazy in Love,” and, I will go on record that I laughed out loud (in a good way) during the “H to the Izzo” moment too.
Marlow: While I agree that DiCaprio is pretty great from the moment we are introduced to him at one of his parties—the shot in the trailer of him raising a glass and grinning as fireworks go off in the background, or almost the exact same way we’re introduced to him in Django Unchained—the actors are all overwhelmed by Luhrmann’s flamboyance and the fake-looking CGI environs. The two best scenes in The Great Gatsby are scenes devoid of Lurhmann’s high-flying antics, where he really dials it down and it’s just a few actors in a room—his first encounter with Daisy at Carraway’s cottage and his hotel-room meltdown. But those scenes, where the acting takes center stage, are few and far between. Instead we’re treated to a bloated CGI extravaganza replete with cameras swooping down the sides of skyscrapers, speeding back for birds eye-view shots of cities and coastal mansions, split-screens, period newsreel footage, sepia-toned footage, apparitions in the clouds, words being typed out onscreen, etc. The actors, who do a fine job, are completely overwhelmed by all this nonsense. The irony here is that, in attempting to make a satire about excess, Luhrmann has done the very thing that Fitzgerald railed against: make a fluffy, over-the-top soap opera that incorporates the most loathsome aspects of contemporary cinema and music while completely losing sight of character development, plot development, and lyricism. And the jazz/rap/R&B-hybrid numbers are all groan-worthy and headache-inducing—especially the jazzy version of Jay-Z’s “H to the Izzo.” While I’m not the biggest fan of the novel, many are, and it’s a damn shame that a bunch of kids will forgo reading the book to watch this outrageous dreck.
Isabel: Not to get too sappy here, but when I go to a Baz Luhrmann movie, I want to be swept away, transported to a fantasy world that looks and feels and sounds like something I’m not used to. Gatsby holds up as a story, the acting is strong, it looks gorgeous, and there’s a constantly shifting definition of time and space—just the way there is in the book. Even if Luhrmann adds to the spectacle, I don’t care: Gatsby is a celebration, a massive party (even bigger than, as you said, the Met Ball), but most of all, it’s downright fun to watch.