I DON'T KNOW if other readers of The Great Gatsby will relate to this, but I tend to almost forget that Gatsby is a novel of the roaring '20s, full of flappers and fast cars and gin-fueled debauchery. When I think about Fitzgerald's book, I think about that far-off green light at the end of the pier, representing all the things we think money can buy us, and about James Gatz's tireless, doomed quest to reinvent himself, and about how Daisy Buchanan is a total cooze.
So it was a surprise to see, at a recent screening of director Baz Luhrmann's new film adaptation, audience members dolled up in fringed, drop-waisted dresses, just like the shallow, thrill-seeking partiers who pack Gatsby's house night after night. That's a bit like dressing up as Jar Jar Binks for a Phantom Menace screening, no? Well, in this case, not really: In Luhrmann's hands, Gatsby is sheer spectacle, and these lavish, over-the-top parties are the centerpieces of a lavish, over-the-top film.
The film introduces a dopey framing device for Fitzgerald's classic story—Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is at a sanitarium in the Midwest, see, recovering from a case of "morbid alcoholism" he picked up back East (WebMD gives me that diagnosis all the time). As per morbid alcoholism's well-known "novelist cure," his doctor encourages him to write about his recent experiences in New York. And so in addition to Tobey Maguire's already-annoying voiceover—"this movie needs more of Tobey Maguire's resonant baritone," said no one ever—we're treated to 3D lines of text from the novel that drift across the screen like the effluvia of the world's most pretentious skywriter. Throw in newsreel-style montages of the glittering 1920s, and Luhrmann ensures his audience will remain safely insulated from emotion, character development, or any idea more complex than "Carey Mulligan is pretty" for much of the film. (Note: Carey Mulligan is very pretty.)
A few scenes will make you forget that Baz Luhrmann jizzes Technicolor: When Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) insists that Nick arrange a meeting with his long-lost love Daisy (Mulligan), then goes ridiculously overboard fixing up Nick's house for afternoon tea, we catch a glimpse of a different, better movie, one where 3D window dressings are set aside for an actual character study—and one that DiCaprio, incidentally, would be perfect in. (Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, has long been the most milquetoast actor in Hollywood, so it comes as no surprise when he eventually slams the door on West Egg and yells, "Fine! I didn't want to play with you guys anyway!")
And as for the parties, thrown by Gatsby to lure in Daisy from across the bay? The parties are a Baz Luhrmann energy blast of sound and spectacle—if you've seen Moulin Rouge or Romeo + Juliet, you probably already know how you feel about that. The dresses are pretty, the cars are shiny, the girls are good at wiggling their tummies, and the wildly anachronistic soundtrack? That, actually, is just kind of confusing. (What if Fergie and will.i.am are time travelers....)
F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby is about how the belief that wealth can buy happiness is corrosive (to paraphrase an essay I got an A on in ninth grade). Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby is about how rich people throw the best parties! And while they undeniably do, to give in to the spectacle is to miss the point.