OK, here’s the thing: If you’re looking for a proper, respectful, stiff-backed novels-for-illiterate approach, just save yourself getting worked up and don’t go see this. It’s that simple. If you’re expecting and wanting Moulin Gatsby!, get to a theater with all possible haste. Now, I don’t really give a damn about Fitzgerald’s book. I’m not even all that wild about it, and I’m really too old to care about the all the sputtering and stuttering of the “B…b..b..but it’s a literary m..m..masterp…piece” brigade. And yet, I think Luhrmann’s film captures the essence of the book in ways no other version has while giving us Luhrmann’s brilliant imagining of what it must have been like and how he sees and responds to the story. Unlike every other extant version of the film (the original 1926 one is lost, but the existing trailer looks extremely proper and dull), Luhrmann’s film captures an authentic sense of the desperation that lies beneath the book and the entire Jazz Age.
By the way, I did not use the bogus title Moulin Gatsby! lightly. Having just seen Moulin Rouge!, it’s very fresh in my mind and Gatsby really does follow that template — right down to the way it opens and closes — both physically and dramatically. In giving the film a structure that presents Nick Carraway (here he’s essentially Fitzgerald) as an alcoholic going through a stint in a sanitarium, who is encouraged to write the story as therapy, it adopts very much the same overall structure as Moulin Rouge! with Christian telling the story of the dead Satine. Here it simply becomes Nick (Tobey Maguire) telling the story of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). That, of course, makes Nick’s relationship with Gatsby a kind of romance in itself — and there’s little doubt that Luhrmann has taken Nick’s idolizing Gatsby to, at the very least, the level of a man-crush. You can take that further if you wish but, by the end, the only person we’re sure ever actually loved Gatsby in any sense is Nick. As a result, you can look at the whole thing as the love story of the two men (read that as going into the frighten-the-horses territory if you like) — regardless of the fact that it’s clearly not consummated. After all, the unconsummated loves are often the hardest to get past, which would explain why Nick is so haunted by Gatsby.
I suspect that further viewings of the film will reveal that the structures of the two movies have even more similarity — starting with the first party here being the equivalent of the first trip to the Moulin Rouge. That first party may, in fact, outdo Moulin Rouge! in sheer spectacle while still using that spectacle as an event leading to our first look at a character who has been built up for some time. I didn’t time it — I was too immersed in the film for that — but I wouldn’t be surprised if 20 minutes of the film had passed before we ever see Gatsby, who finally arrives in a shower of fireworks and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” If ever any movie gave us such an overwhelming figure of sophistication, self-assurance and romance as this Gatsby on first look, I can’t conjure it to mind. But this is only one projection of Gatsby — a character who is many things throughout the course of the film.
Being that this is a Baz Luhrmann film, it is, of course, heavily about its style. But like Luhrmann’s most obvious predecessor, Ken Russell (Luhrman seems to have taken on Russell’s ability to polarize audiences and critics, too), the style is part of the vision — part of the way in which the filmmaker is expressing his own take on and reaction to the material. In this case, what we’re getting is Luhrmann’s fever dream of the 1920s in his own terms — and those terms include the surprisingly effective and not really obtrusive use of music that’s not of the period. (If you’re in the avant-garde — like Derek Jarman’s 1979 film of The Tempest with Elisabeth Welch popping up to sing “Stormy Weather” — this sort of thing is praised as brilliant, but that doesn’t seem to work in the mainstream.) The characters are defined by their settings and by the fluidity of Luhrmann’s vision, evoking the grandeur that threatens to swallow them at every turn (especially in the effective use of 3-D). Everything is just a little too much, a little too big and a little too overwhelming — just like the emotions that drive the characters. And, unlike the 1974 film adaption of the story, the characters in this film do not exist in a weird vacuum. This Gatsby is — as he would have to have been — fodder for the media.
The amazing thing, though, is that within this fever-dream fantasia, Luhrmann has found the humanity of his characters in ways no previous film version of the book has done — no matter what illusion of literary fealty they generated (actually, only the 1974 film really tried). His Gatsby —like his film — is alive. He dreams. He feels. He’s an incredible mixture of bravado, bullshit, idealism, childlike naïveté — and in some instances, childish petulance. Fortunately, in DiCaprio he has an actor capable of conveying that range. For that matter, the depths of Nick Carraway are surprising here. Even more surprising to me is that this is carried off by Toby Maguire, an actor I don’t usually care for. Here, he seems just right — and inexpressibly sad.
All in all, Luhrmann’s film does right by the book. Yes, I know there are all sorts of claims of how it “ruins” the book — which is ridiculous anyway, since the book is still there — but I’m not buying that point of view. I think this is simply brilliant filmmaking that takes its place on something like even footing with the story. The story is largely all there — only enhanced by the immediacy of Luhrmann’s filmmaking. In the end, Luhrmann’s film has done something I didn’t think possible: It’s made me actually like the book a lot more. Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande