Audiences are funny this way: quick to embrace the entertainments that celebrate their wish fulfillment fantasies, indifferent to the ones that don’t, they can be virulently contemptuous of works that tell them things that they don’t want to hear.
This, I believe, has always been the peculiar fate of The Great Gatsby: brilliantly conceived, artfully realized, but fatally flawed – as a popular entertainment – for being the thematic and philosophical equivalent of a sucker punch. It serves up everything the culture wants on a vintage silver platter, only to tell us that we can’t have all that, old sport, because in fact, none of it really exists.
Is it any great surprise, then, that the novel, which over time has taken on its well-deserved mantle of literary greatness, was rejected and reviled in its day? Poor F. Scott, perhaps unwilling to understand that you really can’t bite the hand that feeds you, no matter how lavishly you lick it, was bewildered by his book’s poor reception. Director Baz Luhrmann may be feeling some of the author’s pain, given the amount of critical contempt his adaptation has recently endured.
But really, what did these guys expect? Gatsby is a story that goes beyond telling you that money can’t buy happiness. It has the audacity to suggest that there is no happiness in this life, so long as people are the way they are. And given that the book virtually harpoons the American Dream in its heart, ultimately declaring that hope itself can be a spiritual poison, it’s kind of amazing that Gatsby ever managed to find its audience, after all.
In Luhrmann’s case, you could see the bad reviews being written long before the movie’s actual release. I was among the crowd who assumed, not having been a fan of the excesses of Moulin Rouge, that his hook-up with Fitzgerald was a bad idea; it’s why it took me so long to get to a theatre, grudgingly, to don my 3D glasses. But lesser (or no) expectations are a great way to go, because I found that Luhrmann’s Gatsby got a lot of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby right. Have the outraged critics contending that “it’s not the book” ever seen a Hollywood version of a novel before?
Yes, it’s one man’s revision of another man’s vision, and it’s not without its flaws, of course: the newly invented point of view frame that has an institutionalized Nick Carraway recounting the story is as clunky as it sounds, and is wince-worthy in its execution. But Leo DiCaprio is about as perfect a Gatsby as one could imagine, and at key moments the movie is marvelously faithful to the book in spirit, one that seems oddly in tune with our times.
It’s a seemingly schizophrenic spirit. Reading Gatsby, you sometimes wonder if Fitzgerald is skewering his Roaring Twenties hedonists or wholly seduced by them. But in the tragic end, the real point of it all is written so plainly, and so eloquently, that the author had it engraved on his tombstone. Gatsby never escapes his origins, just as his dream girl turns out to have been only that - a fantasy, true to her own blue blood and not to him.
You can’t say that Baz Luhrmann missed this. Sure, there are moments in his version where he goes too far; he fills a room with billowing curtains in the famous drawing room scene that introduces us to Daisy, verging on parody of a justly famous passage that evoked far more with far less gauzy material. But for all his minor missteps, on more important levels, he’s the right man for this job, i.e. fashioning a Gatsby that resonates with our present moment.
The production (Catherine Martin will be Oscar-bait for her costumes and design) sings the proper tune (Craig Armstrong’s seamless melding of music old and new is kind of astounding), from the vertiginous tracking shots to the curl in Elisabeth Debicki’s hair as uber-flapper Jordan Baker. And while you can fault the film for an occasional lack of emotional depth, even this too seems true to the original, which is, after all, a vivisection of superficiality.
No, I can’t help but feel that many of its critics turn away from The Great Gatsby because it’s not playing the movie game of time-honored expectations – because its story asserts a sober and uncomfortable message, beneath all the hysterical merriment and fairytale splendor. It tells us that you can neither get what you want nor what you need, no matter how you strive, so long as life moves forward instead of backwards, and so long as you let your dreams drive you at the expense of your life's realities.
Gatsby’s tragedy isn’t the kind we generally enjoy. But Luhrmann and his collaborators can shrug off their critical brickbats, since the movie is quietly performing quite well, thanks. Apparently, there's enough riotous energy and sweep in this Gatsby 2.0 to say hello to today's audience, despite (or even, at last, because of?) the story's bitter core. Somewhere, that infamous Hollywood failure Fitzgerald may be having a rueful last laugh.