The Jazz Age was a time of excess and self-indulgence across class distinctions that was unprecedented. The scribe of that age, F. Scott Fitzgerald, poured all of that into his writing, along with a generous dollop of angst about what it all meant. His successor, at least as far as depicting that ci-mentioned excess and self-indulgence, Baz Luhrman, has taken Fitzgerald’s most celebrated novel and made it his own. THE GREAT GATSBY in the hands of a filmmaker for whom there is no visual decadence too great becomes a glorious simulacrum of its source material, at times as shallow as its heroine, Daisy Buchanan, at times as bright as its eponymous character, at times as introspective as its narrator, Daisy’s hapless cousin Nick Carroway. It’s bold, raucous, and as tender as the first love that is Gatsby’s raison d’etre and his doom.
This is the theater of memory, as the severe elegance of the Deco grillwork of the title credits zooms away into 3D is recollection colored all the more brightly for the emotional hold it has on Carroway (Tobey Maguire at his earnest and childlike best), It is from his perspective that everything unfolds, as the callow youth embarks on the adventure of his life as the aristocratic of impoverished next-door neighbor of the title character. He tells the story as a flashback from the start of the 20s, from his perch at a mental institution following the stock market crash of 1929 that changed the incandescence of the Roaring Twenties into the grim grays of the Great Depression. And, refracted through his memory, it is a story told with the giddy exuberant of a flapped hopped up on hot jazz and bathtub gin, deliberate in its hyperbole, fevered with the fierce nostalgia, and the enduring mystery of Gatsby, his obsession with the vapid but beautiful Daisy (Carrey Mulligan), and the tragedy that ensues when men carry the illusions of their youth into manhood.
Other adaptations of this story have had their virtues and failings, but this is the one that hews closest to the raw edge of the story. The self-satisfied bestiality of Daisy’s husband (Joel Edgerton), the wordless nobility of the mechanic man he cuckolds (George Wilson ), and of Gatsby himself, a self-made man dripping with money but who cares only for what it can bring him. Gatsby, the enigma to Carroway is less so to the audience as DiCaprio’ s studied insouciance is never less than the simulacrum of the easy elegance of the class to which he aspires. It is only when Daisy thwarts him that we see what has been bubbling beneath that careful façade. Daisy is a fiendishly tricky character to pull off. She is the stuff of plaster and narcissism, and any actress game enough to take her on deserves credit for courage. Mulligan is perfect, living instinctively in each moment, the intensity of one emotion evaporating with the next or with a bout of ennui. There is something in the way she gasps with delight this is both childish delight and the careful calculation of a siren. In that one quirk, she embodies everything that has captivated the smooth but unsophisticated Gatsby, and it’s that one quirk that brings an operatic yet still resonant quality to the tragedy that everyone except Gatsby can see coming.
Self-conscious stylization all in keeping with the 1920s that spawned the story, severe, intricate, decorative patterns echoed in the careful choreography of the servants opening doors, and fast expensive cars wreaking havoc as they use public thoroughfares as their private speedways in an echo of how the drivers will have the same effect on those around them. Loose-limbed, linear figures elongated to just before the point of impossibility dancing frantically, or arching impossibly in attitudes of exaggerated emotion peopling the preferred artwork of Erte and others. Luhrman uses the same bright impudence. Gatsby, a man of mystery to those in the story, becomes on to the audience as well, making his ecstatic first appearance well into the running time, with a crescendo of Gershwin playing, and fireworks exploding in the sky above him.
This is an homage to an era, not just a retelling of the story, and because that is true, the irony of Gatsby, undone by his own optimistic illusions, is more than just a tragic hero. He is a metaphor for the juxtaposition of the American Dream, the promise offered to everyone equally, and the reality of a class system as insidious as that of the Old World, but with particular Yankee flourishes. The visuals are rife with all manner of metaphor, not the least being that of Gatsby’s custom yellow Dusenberg, photographed as it zooms from place to place in such a way that it is distinctly phallic, greedily traversing distances in fulfillment of its biological destiny.
THE GREAT GATSBY is relentless in his excess, which may be the only way of truly catching Gatsby’s smooth desperation in a moneyed world whose savageness lurks as a just another privilege of class that is barely concealed by the glossy veneer of etiquette and money. A savagery that has learned the ploy of how to turn the desperate on one another, and to be indifferent to the resulting carnage. Baz Luhrman, however, has unapologetically created a film to be revered to be reviled, but not one to which it is possible to be indifferent.