There is an idea of Jay Gatsby. An idea: it is scant, brief, but in its fleeting glory it illuminates the nature of lust, obsession and greed. It teaches us that we can’t repeat the past, that we cannot live forever. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of The Great American Novels. Baz Luhrmann’s adaption is a sprawling vulgarity, a blotted tapestry; it is one of the most bathetic films of recent times.
Sometimes people think they are really funny. They do that thing where they get a reflective object and catch the sun with it and direct the light into your eyes. Ha! Brilliant! Luhrmann spends the vast two hour twenty minute running time of his Gatsby doing this. His film is all lambency and noise: ice smashing, corks popping, glitter falling, engines galloping. It groans under the weight of its gaudy, bacchic deceptions of Gatsby’s great parties. The latter seem to fascinate Luhrmann far more than his characters. Michael Bay could have directed this film. Seriously. The camera is never still, never exhausted; it chops and slices and swoops – “Go home Luhrmann, you’re drunk!”
Towards the end of Fitzgerald’s novel there is a moment of magnificent stillness and sadness, in this film it is replaced with the crack of camera bulbs flashing and Toby Maguire screaming a lot. A few scenes before, one of the novels most poignant lines is here an inadvertent punchline, my acquaintance spent the next five minutes chuckling at the sheer banality of it. The sweet nectar of Fitzgeralds prose is obliterated time and again. Everywhere opportunity is spurned for the obvious. The only moment that isn’t completely fucked up is the introduction of the titular character, the great Gatsby, played adroitly by Leonardo DiCaprio. The other performances are swamped by their scintillant surroundings, Maguire in particular is awful, his portrayal of Nick little more than a trembling lip and a wet brow.
“Such a shame, the trailer looked great” said a friend when I told them of my disappointment. And that is the entire problem: this film IS a two hour trailer, at a push it might be described as a music video. This Gatsby is a tawdry and indelicate collage of exquisite literary moments that Luhrmann is unable to stitch together into something emotionally and artistically satisfying. His vision breaks apart like glass against the hard brilliance of Fitzgerald’s prose.