How Baz Lurhmann's 'Great Gatsby' Surprised Me

Classics Fiction Film Jazz Age La Boheme Lit-Crit Love Music Mystery New York City Transgressive Visual Art

The odds didn't look good for the new film version of The Great Gatsby this weekend, I thought, as I donned my plastic 3-D glasses and entered the dark theater. I wasn't expecting to like the movie much at all.

I don't love glitzy Hollywood spectacle, though I was willing to give the much-hyped new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel a chance because it was directed by Baz Lurhmann, a commanding figure in popular experimental cinema with an almost Warholian taste for edgy spectacle. I'd loved his Moulin Rouge, a wicked send-up of chic Paris in the era of Toulouse-Lautrec and absinthe.

If any big director was going to ruin Great Gatsby, I thought, it might as well be Luhrmann, who had apparently hired Jay-Z, Beyonce, Q-Tip, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am for an anachronistic soundtrack (Moulin Rouge, similarly, gave us Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 19th Century France, and made it work.)

But my hopes weren't very high as I entered the theater and put my Gatsby Glasses on. The idea of a 3-D version of a literary love story seemed ridiculous. I was also unhappy with the casting of the histrionic Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. I'd watched this overrated actor bluster through several promising literary movies already: Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Gangs of New York, Revolutionary Road. I knew he only had six facial expressions, and I was sick of them all. I was ready to start hating the movie, as the lights in the theater went out.

Two hours and 22 minutes later, I was on a cloud, singing the movie's praises to my friends (unexpectedly, they loved it too). Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby -- and this movie is Baz Lurhmann's Great Gatsby, not F. Scott Fitzgerald's -- is practically a masterpiece.

That doesn't mean it gets everything about the book right, or even that it gets half of the book right. Much of the book's subtlety is lost -- but then, surprisingly, the movie also adds a few intelligent and subtle touches that Fitzgerald himself might have appreciated.

For instance, the movie opens in "Perkins Sanitarium", where aged Nick Carraway is writing a manuscript after an apparent crack-up. Quotes from other Fitzgerald stories like The Rich Boy are interpolated into the dialogue. Miraculously, the film's brash color and loud style begins to capture the book's emotional timbre, and the transformations in the storyline begin to present new perspectives from which to view the familiar puppet show of love that is Great Gatsby.

Two moments in particular struck me. The first originates in a humble sentence from the novel that I'd never even noticed before, which takes on a sudden life of its own in Luhrmann's film:

I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Lurhmann locates the cinematic complexity of dharma itself in this modest sentence. Nick Carraway intones it, bleary-eyed and thoughtful, as he spirals through a moment of seedy debauchery in a Bohemian flat in Morningside Heights with Tom Buchanan, Myrtle Wilson and a roomful of freaks soaking in bathtub gin. This party night may be the film's best sequence, and as I watched the deranged orgy scene I thought suddenly of the other recent film version of a major American transgressive jazz novel that just hit the theaters: On The Road by Jack Carraway -- er, Kerouac.

As I watched this shimmering debauchery scene, which occurs in the movie's first half, I realized that Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby was already a more exciting and successful film than Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Salles's On The Road, a movie that tried so hard but did not go as far. I even suddenly felt a guilty fleeting wish that I could find out what a Baz Luhrmann On The Road would look and sound like.

The second moment that struck me is the one pictured at the top of this page, when Jay Gatsby schemes to meet his manic pixie dream girl Daisy Buchanan at Nick Carraway's cottage, and then panics and runs outside into the rain and gets soaking wet before coming back in.

At this moment and at several other points in the film, Baz Lurhmann emphasizes Jay Gatsby's embarrassment in a pronounced way that is suggestive of mysterious complexity. Jay Gatsby is indeed, we now realize, completely wet with emotion at this moment in the story. Later that afternoon, when Jay throws his expensive shirts into a pile to impress Daisy, the shirts fall like dirty rags and the entire scene begins to take on a Lynchian sexual spookiness.

At moments like these, this movie's depiction of Jay Gatsby succeeds in adding some psychological depth to our communal literary understanding of this iconic character. (And, yes, I am stunned to hear myself using the word "depth" in a sentence with the name of Leonardo DiCaprio -- well, I guess all his years of acting lessons have finally paid off.)

The film's chronic exaggeration -- especially the exaggeration of Gatsby and the Buchanan's wealth, which was not depicted anywhere near as Trump-scale in the novel -- is a flaw, and so are some corny greeting-card tableaus involving green lights on piers, which really go nowhere.

But the movie's excess is okay. Think about how great it would be if there were a major new Walt Disney World ride dedicated to jazz age underground New York City, and then think about the fact that Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby really is a long and excellent Walt Disney World ride through jazz-age underground New York City. What's not to like about this?

I was particularly interested in how this film would depict the novel's central visual metaphor, the Valley of Ashes, a real-life locale in the borough of Queens, New York that I've written about here and here and here. (The neighborhoods near Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the site of the old Valley of Ashes, are my hometown, which is surely one reason I've always had a soft spot for this book.)

It's a measure of the extraordinary precision and fine-tuning that illuminate this whole movie that this film's depiction of the old Valley of Ashes near Flushing Creek (the site of baseball and tennis stadiums today) is both visually striking and historically accurate. New York Mets fans and Beatles fan will be interested to know that the giant smokestack factory building visible in several shots in the movie actually stood at the exact spot where CitiField now stands, and just a few steps east from where Shea Stadium once stood.

Lurhmann's Gatsby gets New York City right ... and I dare say the film gets F. Scott Fitzgerald right. 3-D glasses and all.

10 Responses to "How Baz Lurhmann's 'Great Gatsby' Surprised Me"

by JBR on

OK--you've got me. I'll get to that movie despite all the trashing it has received from "major" media.

by Alan on

I am in agreement with you the movie is truly great. As A.O. Scott said in his review, the novel is not the gospel and Baz Luhrman does it justice with his interpretation.

As for the 3D, the only benefit is that it increase the number of showing times (3D plus 2D).

by RHK on

Great post, but the seedy debauchery occurs in the West 150s, not the Lower East Side. (Thus, presumably, Luhrmann's emphasis on the black trumpeter.) Also, that scene whitewashed any reference to Nick's possible homosexuality--drawing that odd moustache on McKee's face and then taking THAT nowhere. Finally, it seems to me that even if we want to only consider this is just a Gatsby-themed ride, which is an interesting point, it's difficult to get past the film's importing of a vaguely psychoanalytical frame into perhaps the greatest novel an American has written. That could be right, that could be wrong, but it's not without significant consequence to how we think of Nick and his story. In any case good post--as are those older ones on the Valley of Ashes, roughly my hometown as well.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for comments, RHK ... ack, you're right about the West 150s! I remembered it incorrectly, and will fix the reference to say "Morningside Heights" now. You're right that it looks more like Harlem than the Lower East Side too.

by Michael.Norris on

I am re-reading Gatsby in anticipation of seeing the movie. The last time I read it was in High School. Damn! What a subtle, brilliant novel. I was stunned at the detail of Gatsby's "drugstores" as we had some folks here in Chicago that used drugstores to sell grain alcohol during Prohibition. And that scene (in the book) at the Plaza - hot summer day - pre-airconditioning - I've been in New York in the summer and it can be hellishly hot. Almost done with the book and ready to go see the film.....

Don't be dissing Leonardo, man.

by WIREMAN on

Yeah what'd Leaoardo ever do to u?.....

in all seriousness Levi this is an excellent review that is pretty much the consensus from everyone I know in Frederick, Md. I know who saw the movie. I value your observations that are usually dead on for me, OTR being an exception, but hey even rusty staub struck out a few times for the mets. Keep the movie reviews and book turn ons coming my friend.

by Lisa Geraghty on

Admittedly Levi, I had planned on seeing GG for it's assured bombastic Baz-ness, and not for my esteem for the book.....It is always so cool to hear of someone who figures they'll hate something and then winds up feeling really excited about it!! Great review and great fuel for people to rediscover an important novel and a very important director.

Can I admit I was actually more excited about seeing The Great Gatsby than On the Road? I've never been in love with Fitzgerald's novel, even after trying it a second time, but Lurhmann's film looks like it captures the glitz in a way that tantalizes the eyes. I'm not drawn toward reading about lavish lifestyles, but it is visually compelling. I think that's part of what was missing with the film adaptation of On the Road. It missed the beauty in the cracks, the glitter in the sidewalks. Also, it's as if Lurhmann celebrates wildness while Salles uses it as cautionary tale.

by Bruce Ryan on

Thanks Mr. Asher for your informative review. I too was hesitant to go to what I thought would be just an excuse for a glitzy Hollywood movie. I had started to read The Great Gatsby long before it was required reading for high school. I was bored by the plot/story. I started to read it because I loved Hemingway and Steinbeck and wanted to expand to other " great American authors". I never finished reading it. This movie production with both its direction and acting have given me a desire to read the novel slowly and to enjoy Fitzgerald's writing. (I think DiCaprio's "six expressions" are much better than Redford's one or two that got real old over the years, including the Frances Ford Copula version). I loved how Carraway's words appeared on the screen (hoping they were true to Fitzgerald's written words) as a reminder that the visual story we are viewing is really a person's written creation and development of not just an entertaining plot/story, but meaningful literature.

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