The Moviegoer: The Colossal Vitality of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby Illusion

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

I went into Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby with some reluctance. Luhrmann’s penchant for superabundant style–made famous by Moulin Rouge, whose popularity still escapes me–could go one of two ways insofar as it is a competent filmic rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Undoubtedly, Luhrmann’s eccentric auterism could serve well both the source material’s extravagant parties at Gatsby’s mansion, and even Fitzgerald’s lyrical sense of prose. But my overriding concern was that Luhrmann would end up indulging Jay Gatsby’s vision of himself rather than recognizing that it’s ultimately the smoking gun that leaves James Gats floating lifeless in a pool of his own self-absorbed imagination. Regretfully, despite some terrific performances, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s, that manage to capture the spirit of Fitzgerald’s ever relevant novel, I’m left feeling that these performances get swallowed up in the colossal vitality of Luhrmann’s illusion.

It’s notable from beginning to end, but I really knew I was viewing a Luhrmann film in the early scene when Nick Carraway is at the Buchanans and enters a room where, for the first time, we see Daisy and her pal amateur golfer, Jordan Baker. It’s a memorable example in the film when Fitzgerald’s lyrical description translates to Luhrmann’s decadent sense of time and place. For a moment, our sensibilities our transported in such a way that allows a disruptive breeze, long billowing curtains, and blinding white dresses to usher us into the presence of East Egg royalty in a dazzling introduction that works because Luhrmann here visualizes even some of Fitzgerald’s metaphorical descriptions. In the lead-up to the big Gatsby party, this scene is probably the director most evidently bringing himself to bear on the material–and it works, as it often does during the film. What’s more, I get the sense that Luhrmann knew well the ways in which his stylistic excess could jibe with the novel. One example of this self awareness that’s been noted elsewhere is that there is, relatively speaking, a noticeable scale-back in that excessive style after the big party at Gatsby’s mansion; the first party is a kind of culmination for unrestrained Luhrmannism, and I think this is purposeful. Secondly, the director’s framing choice to maintain Carraway’s narration enables him to have word-for-word passages from the novel appear on the screen. The device is often obtrusively tacky, but it’s notable in the sense that Luhrmann is persistently trying to integrate Fitzgerald’s prose as firework flourishes in his manic display.

Matt Zoller Seitz calls DiCaprio’s performance “iconic.” It’s high praise from a highly regarded critic, and I have nothing but support for the assertion. If, with some of his period-violating choices to contemporize the novel’s themes, Luhrmann runs the risk of having his adaptation eventually feel dated, then know that, at the very least, DiCaprio’s embodiment of Jay Gatsby is one for the ages. And if The Great Gatsby has often been deemed unfilmable, it’s due at least in part to its mysterious visionary protagonist, but DiCaprio, in this his followup role to a fantastic turn as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, is now on a roll after a stretch run in leading man stardom that some critics might deem overrated. In short, what DiCaprio makes his point of focus in the potentially elusive role is the cool restlessness that Gatsby exudes. Which is to say, the inimitable aura that Gatsby strives to maintain is an ideal image that is unmaintainable. And, as such, cracks in that image begin to show when anxiety about its maintenance becomes overwhelming. DiCaprio masterfully conveys an irresistibly distant charm, a faux calm that masks panic which could erupt at any given moment.

And because DiCaprio so effectively conveys this essential quality, it means that several of the story’s pivotal scenes, and much of the film as a whole, works quite well, even in spite of the significant qualm I have (more on this qualm in a moment, which based on my above description, DiCaprio is in a sense working against). Two scenes in particular come to mind. Notably, they’re both in intimate settings that work to unmask the man who can more easily preserve his image at large parties. The first is when Gatsby arranges his first meeting with Daisy at Nick Carraway’s house. DiCaprio adeptly conveys the mounting anxiety that Gatsby feels in the moments leading up to Daisy’s arrival. The shot of DiCaprio’s Gatsby showing up at the door–all pale sleeplessness–after sneaking out of the house upon Daisy’s arrival, is a dead-on image that encapsulates the entire scene, from roomful of flowers to clock fiddling. The other scene that comes to mind is near the end of the film when Gatsby asserts himself on behalf of Daisy to confront Tom Buchanan about the affair. In the scene, DiCaprio’s Gatsby is not only all desperation, he’s also uncomfortably forced to be transparently desperate. Both of these scenes are about a subversive, escalating anxiety, just beneath the surface of Gatsby’s freshly attired exterior–and DiCaprio is perfectly suited (by the way, my colleague, Josh Larsen, is right: the costume design in this film is superb).

Above, I alluded to my overriding disappointment with the film, but before unpacking my sense of this problem, I want to introduce it by highlighting bits of convergence with other critics on the specific point. First, there’s Ty Burr in The Boston Globe: “[T]he movie ends up romanticizing what Fitzgerald spent the book de-romanticizing.” In his Variety review, Scott Foundas offers this nice little quip: “What Luhrmann grasps even less than previous adapters of the tale is that Fitzgerald was, via his surrogate Carraway, offering an eyewitness account of the decline of the American empire, not an invitation to the ball.” And, finally, in an insightful Christianity Today piece comparing Jay Gatsby with Don Draper, Jackson Cuidon and Alissa Wilkinson have a particular bit that more specifically gets at the issue I have with the film. It’s worth quoting in full:

Baz Luhrmann’s serviceable, if lacking interpretation of The Great Gatsby would have us believe—in endless voice-overs that either inform the audience or remove the book’s subtlety, depending on your perspective—that the self-invention of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play this role) is all about Daisy. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, in awe: “Everything—he did it all for Daisy.” Gatsby’s mansion and immaculate lawn, his ridiculous riches, the parties, the lavish extravagance, was all for Daisy (Carey Mulligan). He’d met her only five years earlier, but allegedly, at that point, he made up his mind to have everything—in service of getting Daisy.

Too bad for Luhrmann, then, that we’re also taken back to Jay Gatsby’s youth, when he was just James Gatz, son of dirt-poor Nebraskan farmers with nothing but a wooden shack to their name. Nick’s take on the situation: “Gatsby didn’t consider [his parents] to be his parents; not really. He would stare out of his roof up at the stars and dream of another life.” Gatsby had made up his mind—long before he met Daisy—that his own dream of himself, of who he could be, trumped any connections to people around him.

Upon the film’s conclusion, I had exactly this uncomfortable sense that Luhrmann had in the end romanticized that which was Gatsby’s very downfall. Cuidon and Wilkinson  sharpened this sense by noting that the film misses the point by focusing too much on Gatsby’s desire for Daisy. In other words, what the film misses is that Gatsby doesn’t truly care for Daisy so much as he cares about how attaining her fits in with how he’s imagined his ideal life. As a complement to this argument, I think that three omissions from the film adaptation are telling. The first is a passage from the book that I think is significant. And, in a film that quotes directly from the novel so often, it’s worth noting if an important passage wasn’t included. Nick Carraway has this to say after Gatsby has had his long awaited day with Daisy:

As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

It’s not even so much that this passage isn’t quoted directly–it’s that the film almost wholly overlooks this essential nuance of Gatsby’s character, and as such, misrepresents the novel. Two other omissions from the adaptation support the idea that the film didn’t quite grasp this element of the novel’s most significant theme. They’re seemingly minor details in terms of plot, but fairly important clues if you recognize that Gatsby’s downfall isn’t, at bottom, about Daisy.

One such omission is when Gatsby briefly meets Daisy’s daughter. Here’s Nick Carraway again: “Gatsby and I in turn leaned down and took the small reluctant hand. Afterward he kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before.” This little bit, which easily could have been included, speaks volumes about how Gatsby’s imagination is self-absorbed; in the film, then, Gatsby’s dream isn’t allowed to be confronted by the reality of Daisy’s daughter and how she ought to play into what would be best to imagine for other people or even himself. The second omission is the return of Gatsby’s father–the man who Gatsby would rather not be part of the life he imagines for himself. His appearance could have provided an appropriate angle of sympathy for Gatsby in that we find out the son had, in certain ways, taken care of his father, while also highlighting the sense in which he wasn’t involved with his father in any intimate way because he was excluded from Gatsby’s imagination. Gatsby’s biological father only enters the scene once Gatsby’s dead, and none of the people who populated the life that Gatsby imagined for himself were anywhere to be found. This is an important tragic note that’s missing in the end of the film. And each of these two omissions is an example of significant others who are devoured by Gatsby’s carnivorous imagination.

To be clear, I think Luhrmann’s film attempts to take the novel seriously–he very much means for the film to show the downfall of those who indulge in excess, whether it’s a newly acquired fortune or an inherited one. And I think the tangled web of secret marital affairs and racist elites are both here, too. But I think the most subtle sense of worldliness that the film can muster is merely material excess, while Fitzgerald’s novel is much more insightful. Gatsby’s form of anxiety indicates a subtle worldliness, because on the surface he seems content, generous, and peaceful. The truth, though, is that Gatsby’s happiness is predicated on the fulfillment of the life that he’s imagined for himself, and when that vision can’t sustain itself, the idolatrous futility of his dream creates a profound anxiety and even a murderous hatred for the person who would deny him his vision. The people in Gatsby’s life only matter insofar as they are fulfilling his desires in service of his imagined life. This is all to say that “worldliness” is often conceived, and sometimes misunderstood, as a form of materialism, when in fact it’s often a more subtle personal problem than we realize. Because Gatsby’s dream is ultimately qualified by a clearly defined selfishness with which everyone else must fall in line (including himself unto delusion) , he is dominated by an anxiety which prevents him from truly enjoying anything or anyone with any lasting satisfaction. Instead of leading Gatsby to greatness, his grand vision eats away at him.

Jay Gatsby’s imagination is run amok in the sense that he wants to create the contours for his own existence in a way that uproots and destructs his creaturely status. When this imagined existence fails, he’s left with a “new world,” as Nick Carraway imagines it, in which “he must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about[.]” His grand romantic vision for himself–the new life he wants to recreate–is ironically rendered uninhabitable . . . deathly.

So it’s disappointing, then, that Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is too much like a romance when it needs to be deeply tragic. It sure feels like Tom Buchanan is the lone bad guy here. I don’t think a viewer could come away from the film understanding that profound difference between the sick and the well, or understanding that the line, “you can’t fool God,” is connected to the sense in which we passionately create–and kill ourselves sustaining–false identities.  Instead of romanticizing the flashing green light in the end of the film, we need to feel the kind of appropriate shock that might compel us to imagine better visions qualified by love’s given contours. And in the aftermath of that shock, we need God to send someone to say: you ought to have a church for times like this.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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