Having just ‘read’ The Great Gatsby a couple of hours before the movie (it was an audio book valiantly interpreted by Jake Gyllenhaal), the story’s details were still fresh in my otherwise horrible memory when the scenes played out in front of me, this time as interpreted by Baz Luhrmann. (I think that sentence is a Dan Brown in the making.)
The book’s plot is a little thin to begin with—it’s only about four hours long, and you can more or less, sum it up in one page, with much of the action happening at the end. I’m impressed Luhrmann was able to make a two-hour movie out of it without making it a snoozefest, although the white expat in front of me did sleep pretty much the entire film.
The director was faithful to the plot of the movie, but as to the interpretation, I wasn’t sure. The film opened with captivatingly elegant scenes, especially in the introduction of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), with white flowing curtains fluttering in the air as if the narrator, Nick Carraway, had just arrived in heaven. (I expected much more… heft from Tom Buchanan, played by Joel Edgerton, but there were winning moments, such as in the emotionally charged scene at the garage.)
What I found jarring was when Luhrmann, with his signature Moulin Rouge style, began introducing contemporary pop culture to the material, starting with the soundtrack, then later, with abandoned kitsch. In interviews, the director said this was meant to evoke the excessively lavish lifestyle of the rich and greedy, but–I don’t know if it was special effects—they all looked like caricatures than real persons. The mansion’s lights were too harsh and fake, and the fountains were ridiculous—Gatsby out-Disneyland Disneyland itself.
There was a time it did work: when Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), like a forlorn schoolboy lover, was about to meet Daisy for the first time. That was kitsch made right.
However, by the end, when all the film could rely on were words that, in the book from which it was based on, conveyed the sighs and yearning of a despondent man—no parties, or fountains, or mansions, and glittering dresses—Luhrmann ended up literally writing the words from the novel onscreen.
The message, it seemed, was that the book is best left as is.