From Willy Loman and his diamonds in Death of a Salesman to the Joads and their famous westbound road trip in The Grapes of Wrath, revealing the American myth as a shiny yet futile fantasy is nothing unfamiliar in literature, but doing so while implicating an audience in its own excess is a more complicated project, one handily taken on by Baz Luhrmann in his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mostly undisputed masterpiece The Great Gatsby. This is a film which takes classic source material and imbues it on screen with a sense of wonder commensurate to its prior form, perhaps offering an even more visceral impression of the possibilities inherent to this beautiful, tragic world, as Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) would undoubtedly describe it. Decadent prose is transformed into a decadent filmmaking style that defies modesty in the most brutal sense. Gone are Fitzgerald’s incisiveness and subtlety, but they’re replaced here by Luhrmann’s grandiosity, equal parts Gershwin and Beyoncé and Jay-Z—a larger-than-life worldview that sometimes grates but also frequently charms, despite an uneven script with a penchant for condescension. But these are fireworks that are meant to burn out, and when the exterior of light and color and magic burns away, it’s up to the doctor in the room to see if a heartbeat can be detected.
Fitzgerald’s story is that of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the young Midwesterner who moves to the big city and immediately gets swept up in Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) world, where glamour and tragedy inevitably walk hand in hand through an extravagantly lit Prohibition-era wonderland. There’s a sense of unreality to Luhrmann’s vision, heightened by its attempt to reveal necessary truths that are impossible to represent accurately without the use of fantasy. The film operates in a lucid dream, sense-making while also keeping us slightly unhinged, an impression not helped along by the overt garishness of Gatsby’s castle, reminiscent of a Disney set, or Nick’s hovel next door, which seems air-lifted from the Shire. The magic is in the purely Luhrmann-esque moments, those which exist outside of the narrative: After witnessing a scene at the Buchanans’ house in which Daisy’s husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), encourages caution while navigating the upcoming submersion of the white race, we cringe as we realize he’s in the intimate company of his mostly black staff; but then later on, while riding in Gatsby’s car over the Queensborough Bridge, Nick is entranced by an open convertible full of extravagantly dressed African-American merrymakers holding drinks and laughing as they’re ushered into the city, their white driver crammed into a corner while countless bottles of champagne cool over ice in the front seat, the driver’s necessary and functional service always a secondary concern to the celebration at hand. An impossible party, not the least because of the inextricable realities of race and class at this point in American history—but then again, Luhrmann’s parties all feel impossible. The harsh idiocy of Tom’s worldview is contrasted magically and evocatively in a slow-motion fugue over the East River, Luhrmann’s mode reminiscent here of the language of music videos, all style and metaphor, the narrative gleefully buried in subtext.
At one point during Gatsby’s storytelling, desperate for Nick to believe his origin story (one of many presented in the film, rewriting himself just as his country has and does), he waves his hand in the air and simultaneously launches a shooting star into the night sky, a metaphor literalizing itself to accompany the story he’s telling about the particularly American myth of upward mobility, the idea of making something from nothing. Here we have the leisurely summoning of grandiosity, a fantastic grandiosity within which is buried a smaller, quieter morality tale. Because is this not the story of how the American dream, as it was once dreamed, is impossible? Perhaps Luhrmann is too in love with Gatsby to realize that the two men dream in equal excess and with equal measures of heightened triumph and dramatic failure, both of them imagining a world much more lush and more full of possibility than the one the rest of us see, thus rendering them unable to make fully tangible their overtly bombastic visions. And both men eventually suffer the inevitable hangover we would expect after such a fantastic buzz.
But aren’t we all also Nick Carraway, both at the party and outside of it at once, gazing up from the darkening streets through yellow windows behind which lurk all kinds of human secrets, but then only seeing ourselves staring back? By the end, Luhrmann’s audience is made to feel like someone who wakes up the morning after a bender and feels vaguely apologetic about possible infractions which might have occurred the night before, even when all they were doing was accepting the rules of engagement. But Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is, in the end, a party worth going to—or sneaking into, since Gatsby only rarely sends out invitations, deciding instead just to assume you’ll show up anyway. The party is tastefully decorated, fully in possession of the “chemical madness” Nick both respects and fears: the performances, especially those of DiCaprio and Mulligan, match Luhrmann’s 3D camera in their larger-than-lifeness; and the soundtrack, highlighted by a Lana Del Rey song that perfectly accentuates a montage during which Gatsby finally shows Daisy the house he’s ostensibly built for her, is a powerful statement, both purposely irreverent and at the same time pitch-perfect. The green light at the end of the Daisy’s dock is a trancelike beacon from the start, the pendulum that hypnotizes Gatsby and, in turn, the audience, and lets us fall helplessly into Luhrmann’s world. But it’s too bad the party ever has to end, because when the final revelers stumble down the great lawn and back out into the harsh morning, all that’s left behind is everything that still needs to be cleaned up.