The Surprisingly Pretty Good Gatsby

I’ve preemptively complained about Baz Luhrmann‘s take on The Great Gatsby to anyone who would listen (especially here). Produced by Jay-Z, the soundtrack was littered with his friends and family and primarily hip-hop artists with a few other randomly popular “indie” artists like Sia or Florence & the Machine – which frankly just seems absurd. I even jumped the gun and named this review “Remembering when Gatsby Used to Be Great: A Movie Review” before I had even seen the movie. I’ve cherished the book for years and was naturally terrified at what might happen with this movie. I don’t know if it was the hellishly low expectations or the slight drunkenness that gave way to exhaustion during my late viewing of the movie but…

I really liked it.

Granted, it was far from perfect and its flaws were readily apparent, but it’s a very enjoyable movie. It was pretty darn good, and certainly not Great. Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby is an interpretation first and an adaptation second, meaning that rather than just transplant the story, he’s doing what he might call “refining”. Across the board, Luhrmann is making inferences based on subtle implications from his source material. Things that Fitzgerald merely hinted at have been clearly spelled out. What did the letter to Daisy on her wedding day say? We find out. What happens to Nick after the events of the novel and goes back out west? Oh. You didn’t know? He committed himself to a sanitarium due to depression in a grim and desperate attempt at regaining his sanity. Obviously! As you can probably guess, Nick’s doctor prescribes that he write about his experiences as a means of psychologically processing it all. If you’re hearing this for the first time, then like me, you probably want to start a riot or something. That’s a huge assumption. And come on Bad Baz, how many times are you going to use the retrospective typewriter archetype?

Amazingly enough, this plot structure works. Think about it: the greatest struggle that all previous film adaptations of The Great Gatsby had was that no director could answer one very obvious and very important question. What do you do with Nick? In the novel, he’s our contemplative and (supposedly) honest narrator. The story of infidelity and wild parties is loftily analyzed and over-romanticized through Nick’s eyes. Gatsby is transformed from cuckolder to God. Typically, a movie can do little more than showcase Gatsby and Daisy’s affair while Nick is awkwardly sidelined. But in Luhrmann’s representation, Nick remains the main character and is essential to the plot. He isn’t wasted as a vehicle to get to the Gatsby-Daisy reunion so that the main story can dominate the screen time. Nick is even present during those indiscreet afternoons when Gatsby and Daisy enjoy themselves before it all goes to shit cuss.

What does fall off the radar are those tertiary characters like Myrtle and Jordan. In the novel, both are considerably more prominent. Nick is fascinated by Jordan’s flaws and “half in love with her” at the strained climax of the book, but in the movie, as soon as Nick stumbles into Gatsby’s charming gaze, Jordan utters no more than a dozen words for the rest of the movie. And when she is on screen, the snappy dialogue bounces back and forth between her and Nick or her and Daisy with frantic precision. Most of the time, characters are speaking quick enough to make you dizzy and it feels like she’s hardly there at all.

Likewise, Myrtle’s big sequence of partying with Nick and Tom before Gatsby ever even appears is immensely downsized. Rather than implying that Tom and Myrtle have sex in their apartment, Luhrmann has us sit in the next room with Nick and hear their raucous lustmaking. In the book Nick explicitly calls that particular night perhaps the drunkest he’s ever been. Fittingly enough, we see the party as incoherent and jumbled bursts. Nick is drinking. Nick is dancing with Myrtle’s sister. Nick is popping pills and drinking more. Then he’s missing clothes. Then Myrtle is getting backhanded by Tom. People are screaming. And somewhere in the apartment, a puppy is choking on smoke and whimpering from loneliness.

Luhrmann’s tactic of reading between the lines is at its best in scenes like the climactic two scenes that include just about everyone. The sweltering heat boils everyone’s temper. Daisy has promised that she would finally break it off with Tom and tell him that she never loved him. Nick and Jordan sit awkwardly with them, wondering when the storm will land ashore. When it comes down to it, Daisy cracks under the pressure. Flustered, she shrieks and delivers one of her most recognizable lines:

What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the day after that, and the next thirty years?

When the pressure hits, Daisy can’t take it. She can’t bring herself to be anything less than perfect despite what she may or may not truly want in her heart. Rather than force the confrontation of a decision, she runs away and retreats into herself out of sheer restlessness. She’s overwhelmed by the idea that life might not be provided to her on some golden (not even silver) platter. What if she actual had to think and plan and make the hard decisions? Instead she retreats far into herself and the diversions of her class and culture. So she suggests they go into the city and drink. In the novel Daisy is visibly upset when she delivers this line, quite literally “crying” it out. In the film she is hysterical and it’s terrifying. The tension in this and the sequential scene are powerfully delivered by everyone in the cast. Gatsby even launches himself at Tom as if to slaughter him.

Of course, Daisy cannot confront herself or Tom, and she can’t give Gatsby what he wants (which is for her to say that she never loved Tom). In the end, Tom knows that he’s won and boastfully sends Gatsby and Daisy away to drive home in Gatsby’s flashy yellow car. We all know how that ends up, but an interesting thing happens when Gatsby leaves the room. Rushing, he knocks over a vase and it shatters. Everything’s broken because of his interference. But then Tom slams the door shut and something on the wall falls and shatters. Both know only how to destroy and not create. It’s a subtle and deliberate choice that potentially speaks volumes to their society, and it also hearkens back to the first scene of Daisy and Jordan when the ethereal wind on the curtains gives the scene a dreamlike quality up until Tom angrily slams all of the doors and windows, sucking all the life out of the room.

In a similarly deliberate and very obvious move on the part of the filmmaker, every single male character has a combover that gets tousled out of control in moments of emotional compromise: drunk Nick, Gatsby after seeing Daisy, and Tom just after doing it with a random actress at Gatsby’s party whilst trying to hunt Daisy down (wait—WHAAAT!?). It’s all very ridiculous, comical, and totally unnecessary, but you might argue that it’s the only bit of levity in what is otherwise a very stern comment on the vices of American society. And don’t even get me started on how much the green light is featured in this movie. Too much. Way too much.

I could go on and on about The Great Gatsby, whether it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald crushing it or Leonardo DiCaprio crushing it. I could tell you how the characters of Daisy and Jordan show us that some girls long to be worshipped and others are content to be loved and still yet more are too restless and confused to know which they are. I could tell you how the character of Gatsby is essentially an uneducated perspective on modern perfection in a broken society. I could tell you how Tom’s inability to literally see the green light at the end of his own dock is a stroke of genius. I could tell you so many more things, but I’ll settle on the following finale:

I thoroughly enjoyed what Luhrmann did with the film. The hip-hop and pop music is featured sparingly and only in the glare of Gatsby’s fireworks. The cast was perfect, even when it’s Jordan Baker’s jaunty angles or Myrtle Wilson’s precise midpoint between voluptuous and grotesque. Luhrmann makes his assumptions – most of which are justified – and gives us a fast-paced and mostly smooth ride (save for only a few red-headed speed bumps). His approach sacrifices the substance and mystery that is nigh on magical in the novel for the sake of making the tale more logically accessible; it’s got a lot less heart.  Yet there’s a kind of graceful focus of movement to the movie that mirrors Gatsby’s gestures and speech: strained and deliberate, that you just don’t get in the novel. Fitzgerald doesn’t waste any space but the novel couldn’t be called fast-paced. There’s a dreamy, wondrous air to Nick’s/Fitzgerald’s written words – words that still appear throughout the movie – but this glossy feeling of romance is absent throughout much of the movie’s party scenes (where glitter is literally sticking to people – it is the herpes of crafts supplies). Gatsby is humanized and demystified in a way that showcases the macabre and beautiful dark horror of a bitterly drunken life. I know that’s a very heavy sentence, but it’s that kind of severity that’s largely hidden from us when reading The Great Gatsby, and when we see it in action, it’s easier to feel the darkness and harder to see the green light.