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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gatsby in 3D

Baz Luhrmann’s lush retelling of Fitzgerald’s classic

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The Great Gatsby is among the greatest of great American novels, but Hollywood has had a hard time transferring the story to the screen. The first try, a 1926 silent, is listed as lost. The 1949 Gatsby with Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters is also MIA—virtually unavailable on digital and seldom seen in its day. Best remembered is the 1974 Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Alas, the memories aren't fond for that box office dud, which audiences generally ranked as dull.

Director Baz Luhrmann is anything but dull and his unabashed love of irony serves him in filming F. Scott Fitzgerald's deeply ironic novel. After all, Jay Gatsby is a self-made fraud, a parvenu among old wealth, heedlessly in love with a shallow woman unworthy of such ardor, Daisy.

Leonardo DiCaprio is handsome and charming in the title role, but he’s invisible for many minutes into the movie and then, at first, glimpsed only as a lonely man at the end of his private pier, staring across the bay at a beckoning green light. Gatsby is a man of mystery, the hidden master of a great mansion in the nouveau riche precincts of Long Island, a palace filled with mad Jazz Age revelry on weekends. Like the Wizard of Oz, he operates unseen, a celebrated name without a face. As in the novel, the voice of the story belongs to Gatsby’s neighbor, the novice Wall Street trader Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man mode as the naïve innocent amazed to discover his power.

One of Luhrmann’s tricks is to transform The Great Gatsby into a flashback from 1929, composed at the urging of a psychiatrist as a therapeutic journal just after the stock market, and the values of Gatsby and company, came crashing down. By that time Nick is diagnosed with “morbid alcoholism” and insomnia. Depressed, he allows memory to speak. Luhrmann’s other trick is filming Gatsby in 3D to evoke the incandescent 1920s as a fantasy world. Sometimes the strategy works; sometimes the results resemble a cheap 3D postcard.

The mysterious Gatsby reveals himself to Nick because he needs a favor. Nick is gentry, the cousin of the love of Gatsby’s life, Daisy. Carey Mulligan gives her eyes that beckon but a little more genuine passion than Fitzgerald allowed this wife of old money—the hearty but dim Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who lives across the bay in the mansion with the green light. Gatsby is hooked up with all sorts of illegal activities, including risky financial schemes and, at the height of Prohibition, bootlegging. He’s like the richest narco trafficker of the 21st century, but buoyed by a sense of class, culturally as well as economically. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby was all about America’s class system, whose subtle gradations left even some millionaires looking up to their “betters.” Luhrmann preserves this sensibility along with long stretches of dialogue and description from the novel.

Gatsby embodies the can-do spirit of America and the dream of recreating oneself in a new place with a new identity, and Fitzgerald explores the shadow side of that dream. The lush visual overload in many of Luhrmann’s scenes, and the anachronistic juxtaposition of jazz with club music and hip-hop, helps link then with now—the hedonistic excess of the Roaring Twenties with the brainless binge of the ’00s. That Gatsby flew as high and fast as he could for love—his romantic obsession with Daisy—is meant to make him a better man than most who walked in his expensive white shoes. As a poor boy from nowhere who remade himself through luck and pluck, Gatsby never realized that the “vast recklessness of the rich,” as Nick puts it, would eventually defeat him.

Luhrmann’s most haunting scene is the film’s conclusion—that green light at Buchanan manor, glowing like a tease whispering “Go! Go!” into the night until the frame fades to black.