5 Things Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby' Got Right (and 5 It Got Wrong)
Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" has stoked a revival of Jazz Age mania and has had fans and critics buzzing (and bellyaching) for months leading up to its premiere. Now that the movie is in theaters, the question on everyone's (or at least us book obsessives') minds is: Does it do justice to Fitzgerald's novel, one of the most beloved American literary works of all time?
Films are films and books are books, and every artist is entitled to his or her fair share of creative license. My question was whether Luhrmann's rich directing style would bring an already vivid story to life, or whether his penchant for circus-y glitz (I'm looking at you, "Moulin Rouge!") would diminish the novel's natural elegance and depth. Ignoring minor inconsistencies between book and movie (Meyer Wolfsheim wears human molars as cufflinks, not around his neck like some lapsed witch doctor), here are five things the film got right and five it got dead wrong.
Right: Nick Carraway
Mushmouthed Tobey Maguire is perfect for the role of tepid, soft-spoken Nick Carraway. He evokes perfectly the narrator's mix of curiosity and unease as he peels back layers of glitzy flapper-era New York to discover its dark, empty center. What I liked most about Maguire's performance, though, is that he gives physical presence to an otherwise near-invisible character. When you're reading "The Great Gatsby," you can almost lose sight of the fact that Nick is an actual person—self-effacing and absorbed in the lives of those around him as Fitzgerald depicts him. Maguire's performance reminds us that Nick, however subdued, is as much a player in the story as Daisy, Tom and Gatsby. My only quibble is that Luhrmann chose to render nearly invisible the halfhearted romance Nick and Jordan carry on in the book.
Right: Daisy Buchanan
Much as Daisy does in the novel, Carey Mulligan draws filmgoers in with her blonde-bob-framed cherubic pout, and pushes us away just as quickly with her selfishness and caprice. We love her, we hate her, we pity her, we want to kill her—point for Mulligan (and for Luhrmann and his casting director).
Right: Jay Gatsby
If any actor can pull off the part of Jay Gatsby, it's Leonardo DiCaprio, and pull it off he has (for the most part). While the Gatsby of the novel is a bit less antic and heart-on-his-sleeve than DiCaprio's portrayal, Luhrmann's former "Romeo" has all the charm and eternal optimism of one of literature's foremost heroes.
Right: Jordan Baker
The film's real shining star, though, is Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jordan Baker—the childhood pal of Daisy's who become Nick's guide to the glittering world of the East and West Eggs—with a fascinating blend of spookiness and vulnerability. As in the book, Baker's shrewd quips and general air of nonchalance have a way of putting the whole Gatsby-Daisy-Tom affair into absurd relief. Her performance reminded me of what Meryl Streep said of Emily Blunt in "The Devil Wears Prada"—that "she should be given the film carbon copy, rather than steal the movie."
Right: Gatsby's parties
The party scenes at Gatsby's turreted CGI castle of a house border on being overdone, but they're too much of a visual pleasure to pan. Every reader imagines these parts of the book differently—Fitzgerald gives us litanies of details, but never a cohesive panorama—and Luhrmann has brought his personal version to life. At some point, you have to give in to the gravity-defying dance routines, the extraterrestrial costumes, the impossible profusion of food and champagne, and just let Baz be Baz.
Wrong: The dialogue
Some of the book's best pieces of dialogue are the movie's worst. Poetic lines such as Daisy's, near the start of film—"I'll hope she'll be a fool—that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool"—tumble out of the actors' mouths with cringe-worthy awkwardness. Luhrmann also likes to superimpose quotes from the novel over images on the screen. The famous final line of the book—"boats against the current," etc.—hangs ghost-like over a shot of dark flowing water. I've seen PowerPoint presentations that were less cheesy.
Wrong: The framing device
Of the many changes Luhrmann makes to "Gatsby," the weird story-within-a-story framing device is the most egregious. In the novel, a fully disillusioned Carraway has left New York and returned to the Midwest, and his narrative is a stream-of-consciousness recollection of the summer of 1922. In the movie, Carraway is holed up in a sanitarium in the middle of nowhere, being treated for alcoholism, and he writes the story of Gatsby as a therapeutic project at the recommendation of his psychiatrist. I'm not sure what Luhrmann is trying to do with this departure, other than supercharge the story with a kind of desperate pathos. Perhaps he's paying tribute to his own classic, "Moulin Rouge!", which uses a similar device. In any event: Meh.
Wrong: The music
Sometimes using contemporary music in a period piece works (see: "Marie Antoinette") and sometimes it doesn't. The much-hyped soundtrack of "The Great Gatsby" falls into the latter category. Beyoncé and Andre 3000's rendition of "Back to Black" and Emile Sandé's cover of "Crazy in Love" felt like rude interruptions that took me out of the film's era. And Luhrmann missed a big opportunity to do what F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel can't, which is give us the actual sounds of the 1920s. I wanted more jazz, less Jay-Z.
Wrong: The apartment party
Early in the novel, Tom Buchanan drags Nick to his secret bachelor pad in Manhattan where he's throwing a small party with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson. It's an important scene, as it marks Nick's first encounter with the loose morals of 1920s New York. "I've been drunk just twice in my life," he says in the book, "and the second time was that afternoon." Luhrmann's interpretation of this scene should be released on a separate DVD as "Gatsby Gone Wild." Its depiction of debauchery has more in common with "Spring Breakers" than its source material. Showing Nick Carraway drinking out of a 20s-era beer funnel might have seemed like an amusing idea, but it completely took me out of the story.
Wrong: Myrtle Wilson
In all the fratty rampage of the apartment party, we lose sight of Myrtle, one of the "The Great Gatsby's" most interesting characters. In the novel, she's larger-than-life, a shrill and needy hellion who represents all the greed and gluttony of the Jazz Age writ large. In the film, she's just a vaguely irritating side character who we hardly get to know. As a result, we care far less about her ultimate demise than we should.