Gatsby: Tragic Hero of Hope

Review The Great Gatsby, Directed by Baz Luhrmann

I rarely disagree with what the internet tells me to think about a movie, but today I do. The critics dislike Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. It has a 45 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. They are wrong. Gatsby is a fine film.

Baz Luhrmann is a highly distinctive filmmaker. He specializes in rapid editing, odd angles, swooping cameras, deliberate overacting, highly stylized sets and settings—all punctuated by a score closely cued to the narrative. The package is overwhelming—a sort of cinematic equivalent to Versailles. He saturates you in total art with maximum intensity and no letup. His Strictly Ballroom (1992) was quirky, melodramatic, and strangely fascinating. Romeo + Juliet (1996) was an exercise in overheated excess that somehow clicked. Moulin Rouge! (2001), a ridiculously overwrought romantic musical colorfest, was probably the perfect match between form and content and represented the perfection of Luhrmann’s style.

Luhrmann has now given us his interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, a novel originally published in 1925 (see our review of the novel here). Gatsby recounts the salacious exploits of New York’s rich elite during one summer in the 1920s, centered on the mysterious, charismatic figure of Jay Gatsby and his pursuit of a long-lost love, Daisy. There are parties, affairs, gossip rumors of corruption, and murder. The novel is notoriously hard to capture on film: there are at least four prior attempts, none of which bested the book.

The first third of the new movie feels like the apotheosis of all Luhrmann films, culminating in a quintessentially Luhrmannesque party at Gatsby’s mansion: heaps of glittering streamers, oceans of champagne, scantily-clad dancers jerking rhythmically to a Jazz-hip hop blend, scattered bits of dialogue and story development tossed in like a confetti salad.

It climaxes with the introduction of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby against a backdrop of fireworks and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—a moment so awesomely contrived, so perfectly over the top, so purely cinematic that only Luhrmann would dare attempt it. From anyone else, it would be utterly ridiculous, but it may be the greatest thing Luhrmann ever filmed: my theater erupted in laughter.

Luhrmann wisely eases off on his style (a little) as the story progresses, letting the characters and the story speak for themselves during key scenes. However, he relies heavily on voice-over narration, borrowing extensively from Fitzgerald’s text. While Fitzgerald’s prose is awesome, I don’t care to go to a movie to watch some read a book to me. The voice over felt like auditory clutter, excepting a few scenes in which Luhrmann actually projects the text itself onto the screen matched with accompanying poetic visuals. Luhrmann clearly loves the book—this is a very faithful adaptation of book to screen—but it too often felt like he was trying to find a place for every one of his favorite sentences.

The juxtaposition of the text with the rest of the movie threw into relief the contrast between the two media. I was struck by how much more purely emotional cinema is, compared with the intellectual experience of reading great books. Reading Gatsby was stimulating; watching Gatsby was affecting. I felt more moved by the movie than the book.

DiCaprio is easily the star of the show and the heart of the movie, as he should be. He nails Gatsby’s easy charm and confident charisma—and also his gnawing insecurity. In my previous review of the novel I noted that Gatsby starts larger than life but shrinks as the novel progresses, becoming, by the end, a pathetic love-sick puppy. DiCaprio’s Gatsby isn’t quite so lost. While he plays the nervous schoolboy in his first meeting with Daisy, he also captures a broader and deeper zest for life than what comes across in the novel. The movie version of Gatsby emerges somewhat grander, more tragic, and more self-aware. “I could be a great man,” he says at one point in the movie, but not the book, “if I hadn’t lost Daisy. But my life has to keep going up.”

Gatsby’s great virtue, for which we are asked to forgive him a host of sins, is his invincible hope. Gatsby believes he is infinitely capable of reinventing himself and remaking the world to be better than they were. If he can go from a dirt-poor Dakota farm boy to a war-hero and fabulously wealthy eastern financier, anything can happen. More than one commentator has seen the American Dream in microcosm in Gatsby’s life.

But if Gatsby is a parable of the American Dream, it is a damning one. Gatsby is also a crook, a fraud, a con-man, a rank materialist, and a self-idolater. Nick Carrway, the narrator, ultimately forgives Gatsby these faults, telling him “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole d— bunch put together.” Gatsby is better because he has a sort of integrity: he is faithful to his dream, loyal to himself, and fiercely dedicated to his ideals. The rest of the lot are just in it for the booze and the women.

Are Gatsby’s ideals admirable? If they are, is it better to be a hypocrite in pursuit of them, or to recognize their impossibility and to accept and take pleasure in one’s mortality and corruption? These are the questions that make fans of Gatsby debate until 2 am in their college dorms, and what I love about the story. For my part, yes, self-improvement is admirable; but the turn to criminality is Gatsby’s tragic flaw—and his devotion to an adolescent infatuation is juvenile. And, of course, it is always better to strive and fail than never to strive at all. For that, if nothing else, Gatsby is a tragic hero.

Luhrmann includes a key scene in the film that, in the book, occurs off-stage. It is just prior to Gatsby’s death, and Gatsby opens up to Carraway, tells his story, and allows himself, for the first time, to be vulnerable. In doing so, DiCaprio’s Gatsby becomes human and relatable in a way that the Gatsby of the book always eluded—and that, for me, made his fate sadder. This is a melancholy film, and Tobey Maguire’s intonation of the book’s famous last lines are delivered with a world-weary sadness that surprised me.

The famous green light is omnipresent in the film—much more so than in the book, in which it gets at best a handful of mentions. We see the green light in every other scene, its pulsations punctuated by a whining violin at high pitch. In Gatsby’s death scene, we see the green light again but this time the camera begins to pull back from it: the dream receding before Gatsby’s eyes as his life ebbs away—the fate that awaits all who chase a dream so bound to this life.