Your high school reading list might soon be invading a movie theater near you, if Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” charms enough studios with its lavish success. It emerges off the small curtain call that attended Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” adaptation and will set the stage for James Franco’s take on “As I Lay Dying,” marking the most fascinating trend in modern film. Has Hollywood gone literary?
But “The Great Gatsby” is unique and much more palpable to the Kindle crowd than the Russian, Southern epics that cushion it. It never divorces itself fully from the Id-fueled mania that summer cinema exists to serve, even though Fitzgerald’s novel despised this scene and Luhrmann’s film claims to hate it too. But what it claims and what it presents, framed in gold yet filled with an opulent anxiety over its own image, stand locked in a fascinating battle.
For F. Scott Fitzgerald, there is no replacement. The miasma that plagued his mind was such a particular cloud of obsessions and anxieties in response to such a particular time that no adaptation will capture the man’s essence; none will speak with his same wit and sadness. “The Great Gatsby” film seems to recognize this and even dramatize that futility, flooding us in text copy-and-pasted on the screen, put in Tobey Maguire’s mouth as voice-over, but always inadequate, improper for the image it accompanies.
Like “Romeo + Juliet,” the source material becomes irrelevant. This is a Baz Luhrmann film — his most interesting film, it must be said, but a film still informed by his extravagance and love for self-insulated style, though presented with more restraint than “Moulin Rouge”’s unbearable crack-sugar rush. “The Great Gatsby” is brimming with qualifications. Elegantly composed and sustained shots are sloppily edited together with audio falling out of sync with the character’s lips, but the messiness adds charm. Luhrmann makes a genuine effort to translate some of Fitzgerald’s most untranslatable prose into psychologically taut images of alienation, and he still can’t resist the allure of the porcelain-doll woman, a female character who is cheap, bawdy and at her most glamorous when slapped and mutilated.
Jay Gatsby’s fight against his past seems cursory, a side attraction compared to the greater struggle bubbling inside Luhrmann at this crucial juncture in his career. “The Great Gatsby” is at once exactly what you expect and a shaky curveball. It comes alive long enough for its actors to begin breathing, and their characters suddenly gain a new dimension of unpredictability. They make decisions outside Fitzgerald’s jurisdiction. They start to function as hurt, lustful human beings, the most real and tragic of Luhrmann’s upper-crust echelon —
And then he panics. He tightens his grip on the reins. The film goes rigid. He resorts to parlor tricks and lets “The Great Gatsby” unthread just long enough to negate the film’s central act, giving the audience enough time to doze off without major consequence. Even its best moments are won at a price: the price of insecurity, shallow manipulation and a back-and-forth between two instincts trade turns in the spotlight, though each has little to say.
Luhrmann has little to learn from the past aside from keeping it far behind him. Instead, he should beat on, buoyed by the current, borne forward ceaselessly into the potential that he has just begun to tap.