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Baz Luhrmann versus the god of capitalism


The Great Gatsby (M). Director: Baz Luhrmann. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton. 142 minutes

Towards the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, one of the novel's more hapless characters, mechanic George Wilson, peers out his window at the industrial wasteland that he calls home (described uncharitably by the narrator as 'the ashheaps') and reflects upon his life's ill fortune. 'God sees everything,' he mutters. Ominous words, but the scene's real power comes from the revelation that the object of his utterance is not some distant, benign power, but the monstrous glasses and eyes that adorn a decrepit billboard that looms over the scene.

The billboard has been described in earlier pages, but here its thematic significance is driven home with an elegance that is typical of the novel. In the 1920s New York society of Gatsby, money is God: benevolent to some; laying waste to the lives of others. 'God' in this context could equally be taken to mean substance or meaning, which in the lives of the characters of Fitgerald's novel have been usurped by the divine dollar.

'The eyes of Dr T. J. Eclkleburg' are in Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation too. But Luhrmann, co-screenwriter as well as director of this latest cinematic adaptation of the classic novel, doesn't do subtlety when cheap theatrics will suffice. The first time he shows us the billboard, he has the film's narrator (and not-so-innocent bystander to its tragic events) Nick Carraway (Maguire) effuse that the billboard watching over the ashheaps resembles 'the eyes of God!' The aforementioned scene with George is thus rendered obsolete and is all but absent from the film.

It's hard to know if Luhrmann has deliberately dumbed down Fitzgerald's text in order to appeal more readily to a mass market (early box office results would suggest he has achieved that much, despite the film's critical panning) or if he has simply missed the subtleties of the novel that contain so much of its power. He is foremost a showman, and as spectacle his Gatsby can hardly be faulted. Never has the extravagance of the enigmatic Gatsby's (played here by DiCaprio) parties and lifestyle been rendered so dazzlingly. If cinema was a medium to excite the eyes and ears while relaxing the brain, Luhrmann would be a true master of the craft.

That may not be entirely fair. The casting of the film does suggest some appreciation for the complexities of Fitzgerlad's characters. Mulligan is a fine actor, whose portrayal of the novel's vapid antiheroine Daisy — Gatsby's estranged beloved and the motivation behind all his parties and his mysterious accumulation of wealth — is more sympathetic than most aficionados would have hoped for, but it is commendable; full of longing and even a hint of desperately masked self loathing and distaste for the opulence of her own lifestyle. The complexity of her (barely) passive aggressive relationship with her athlete husband Tom (Edgerton) is well portrayed by both actors.

DiCaprio's Gatsby meanwhile is pitch perfect, his dapper and gregarious facade easily shaken by the memory of past humiliations and the reality of present ones, and his desperate fantasy of reunion with Daisy managing to be simultaneously inspiring and pathetic. One scathing review of Gatsby suggested Luhrmann should have gone all the way and made Gatsby the Musical, with the apparent (highly debatable) implication that 'musical = trash'. In my opinion that reviewer gives too little credit to the quality of these performances.

The worst dumbing-down though comes in the character of Nick, one of the novel's more perplexing characters who, as narrator, undoubtedly shapes the narrative to his own not disinterested perspective. Luhrmann diminishes him to a boyish youth reduced to weary cynicism by the events of the film, a cliched arc that is made more blatantly so by a redundant framing narrative in which a recovering alcoholic Nick relates his story to a psychyiatrist in an institution. This is more cheap, obvious drama at the expense of nuance.

Fitzgerald's novel satirised a society riven by the rapid rise of capitalism, and exposed the opulence of its characters' lives as masking an essential emptiness. Luhrmann's adaptation, on the other hand, is itself simply opulent and empty. It's entertaining and at times emotionally engaging but ultimately stands as evidence of what happens when you substitute substance for extravagance.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Baz Luhrmann, F. Scott Fitzgerland, The Great Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan



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Existing comments

Nonsense. The movie has numerous ills but the interpretation of Nick Carraway ain't one of them. It's an excellent rendering of Nick and the Gatsby/Nick relationship has never been so well delivered.

Peter Goers | 06 June 2013  

Thanks for this review. You've summed up many of the things I didn't like about this movie. For me, the hard sell on the opulence and decadence overwhelmed any attempt to provide commentary on the emptiness of these characters lives. It struck me as a long advertisement for wealth at any cost, with characters so ultimately unlikeable that I really didn't care what happened to them. It's eye candy, without a doubt, and provides the promised sugar hit, but you'll be hungry again half an hour later.

Meg McGowan | 06 June 2013  

Nice review, Tim - with thought-provoking insights. But still a bit hard on Luhrmann's vision of Scott Fitzgerald's story, in my judgement. I found the movie powerful and affecting, and I think Fitzgerald would have liked it. You and I agree on DiCaprio's 'pitch-perfect' portrayal of the complex Gatsby. If there is an Oscar in this movie (too late for the latest round), it might well go to DiCaprio rather than Luhrmann.

tony kevin | 06 June 2013  

There is no accounting for taste! Luhrmann did a great job. True to the story line, with great effects.

Laurence Ryan | 06 June 2013  

Luhrmann's glitz and razzle dazzle was exatly what Fitzgerald was getting at. I found Jay Gatsby perfect- as you say pathetic and keenly going after what he wanted (the American Dream after all) I loved the movie.

jorie | 07 June 2013  

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