By Jacob Mertens.
It was the summer before my sophomore year at high school, and I sat in a rundown bargain theater that only showed films months past their theatrical release. My mother had dragged me to a strange film called Moulin Rouge! (2001), and if I am to be honest my first thoughts were something along the lines of “This would be great to watch on drugs.” I absorbed the visual extravagance of the film with little more thought than that, up until the opening extended note of “Your Song.” I do not know if other cinephiles can track down their love for cinema to a few seconds in a single film, but I can. As Ewan McGregor’s Christian belted the words of Elton John over a frantic recreation of 1900s Paris, and lights spread through the city, I felt a chill and I gave in to a rapture.
Moulin Rouge! may not be the greatest film I have ever seen, but it is my favorite and largely so for that memory. Still, I would defend the film as visually innovative and heartfelt, with an incredible capacity to switch from polar moods of joy and despair without feeling undone for the effort. That, and of course the small matter of director Baz Luhrmann single-handedly resurrecting the musical, only to watch a dreary Chicago (2002) steal the credit a year later. Even so, I approached Luhrmann’s latest film with trepidation, as he was adapting another love of mine: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enduring classic The Great Gatsby.
Following the epic train-wreck of Australia (2008), Luhrmann looked for source material worthy of his redemption and found it in perhaps the American novel. Only one problem, Luhrmann brings nothing to the film that could possibly surpass Fitzgerald’s prose, with the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, who truly seems destined for the role of Jay Gatsby. Before DiCaprio enters the film, Luhrmann’s unwise choice of narrator, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, chokes out Fitzgerald’s words in a flood of exposition, covering the opening chapters of the book at a hurried pace. A decade ago, Moulin Rouge! used the same pacing to great effect, but Moulin Rouge! did not have the chains of greatness tied around its throat. Consequently, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby rushes through its opening, feeling less innovative for the director’s by-now trademark visual flair and use of contemporary music—feeling more like a transcription of The Great Gatsby‘s cliff notes. Meanwhile, Maguire cannot effectively communicate the sardonic wisdom imbued in Fitzgerald’s narration, and so his Carraway becomes a shallow and petty creature.
To be fair, the film becomes very watchable once Gatsby is introduced and the tragic love story between he and the married Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) begins. The parties at Gatsby’s mansion give an effective outlet for Luhrmann’s cinematic indulgences, and DiCaprio offers a magnetic portrayal amidst the many wooden performances around him. The film also harnesses fleeting moments of sublime beauty, such as Gatsby staring across the harbor to Daisy’s home and seeing her image in the clouds. Sadly, Gatsby cannot recover from its many missteps. For instance, while giving Jay Z power over the score may have seemed wise in theory, when the man opens the film with two of his own songs and another by his wife Beyoncé Knowles, all before any other singer utters a word, it feels like an advertisement. Also, having Carraway write his narration as some kind of cathartic therapy is trite, and the floating words do little to mask it.
Stepping back from the film again, it was years after high school when I read The Great Gatsby for the first time. After finishing the book, I experienced a feeling of awe not dissimilar from my first viewing of Moulin Rouge! The simple beauty of the closing paragraph overwhelmed me. I reread the passage, I found others nearby to read it to, and in a similar spirit I share it here:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Clearly Baz Luhrmann had the same impulse to share greatness, and he made an entire film to honor it. And knowing that he could not presume to improve on greatness, he left the above passage intact as his closing monologue. This act, whether Luhrmann knew it or not, sealed his film’s fate as a wasted project. For all its style and glamour, Luhrmann’s Gatsby yields to the ghost of Fitzgerald, whose prosaic insights can find no creative partnership here. His words rise and separate from the film, like oil and water, and above all two lines of dialogue stand out. Carraway tells Gatsby that he “cannot repeat the past” and Gatsby replies, “Of course you can!” Luhrmann would have done well to take the underlying message of this exchange to heart, but instead he tries to piggyback on Fitzgerald’s shoulders, reaching for his own modest greatness, “stretching out his arms” for a Moulin Rouge! or a Romeo + Juliet (1996), for some spontaneous inspiration of madness and grief.
And why not—of course you can repeat the past. But as Gatsby can attest, you risk diminished returns.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.