Anyone who’s seen the screamy, thudding trailers for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby knows that it is not a paint-by-numbers cinematic re-presentation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegant, economic novel. The numbers are there, of course: bemused, embittered observer Nick Carraway narrating the tragic events of one summer outside Roaring Twenties New York City, events involving his super-rich neighbor Jay Gatsby and his unhappily married cousin Daisy. But, to torture a metaphor the way the film tortures a metaphor, Luhrmann goes crazy with the paint.
I mean, it’s colorful — I’ll give it that. The first half, especially, when Luhrmann flies into full phantasmagoric spatter mode in his effort to convey the madcap extremes of the Jazz Age and the obscenely gorgeous world of money, old and new, that provides the story’s setting, point, moral, and meaning. When Carraway gets drunk at a sordid sex party, you may just start to feel a little buzzed yourself. When Gatsby’s great yellow roadster swerves its way through its umpteenth near-collision, your stomach may give a sympathetic lurch. (Don’t fret; the queasiness should help you take your mind off the clunky dialogue, and maybe even Leo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire’s mannered delivery of same.)
But, alas, a picture needs shape as well as color. For some reason, Luhrmann decides to skip ahead from number 50 to number 94 and then circle back, thus stripping Gatsby (and the story) of whatever mystery was left after he finished highlighting every single theme and symbol with spoken words: “Girls don’t marry poor boys.” “You can’t repeat the past.” “I acquired all these things, but actually, I was empty inside.” “God sees everything!” (Granted, some of those clunkers are in the novel, but hearing them brayed aloud only makes them clunkier.)
Again, if this paint thing seems to go on too long, it’s in honor of the film, which decides to stretch out the denouement for much longer than necessary or pleasurable or even tolerable. So: a good painting also relies on shading, on things that draw the viewer’s curious gaze to search amid the shadows. But Luhrmann has no use for anything but the overwhelming glare of the spotlight. That glare strips Gatsby — the “great” character from the title, remember — of everything that makes him romantic, or admirable, or tragic, or even touching. Gone is the American archetype of social ascendance through self-invention. What’s left is an obsessive, deceptive little crook who is so bent on subjecting the Girl He Couldn’t Afford to his own gargantuan self-love that he demands she rewrite her own past for his sake. When Carraway tells Gatsby near the end that he’s worth “the bunch of them put together,” you begin to see why the film opens with our narrator in the nuthouse.
Finally, a painting needs scale. Everything here — from the jarring whump of ice being chipped away from a block to the slo-mo twirl of a falling corpse — is just too damn much. Even the blinking green light at the end of Daisy’s dock — the tiny beacon that beckons to Gatsby from across the water — shines here like a powerful lighthouse in the mist. Heed its warning.
Helluva soundtrack, though.