At the beginning of Bahz Luhrmann's paean to Bohemia Moulin Rouge, a mournful poet types his tragic tale while his voice and chaotic images whirl forth. As Luhrmann's newest orgy of beautiful and profane behaviour The Great Gatsby begins, Nick Carraway is writing a memoir at a recovery home for alcoholics and hopeless romantics (he's both). The letters start floating towards us as they dissolve into the snow outside. From time to time we hear both narrators in voice-overs.
Moulin Rouge is a musical with all the freedoms of song and dance taken further than any musical in history. It works. The Great Gatsby is a serious novel, and Luhrmann, except for characters breaking into song, makes his film version work amazingly well. After all, what Nick discovers with Gatsby, Daisy, the big parties, and all the rest is excess. We are spared nothing, whether beautiful or tasteless. Daisy in her pristine loveliness or husband Tom's mistress in her garish red hair, dresses, and apartment (which owes a lot to CITIZEN KANE's doll house set). When we enter Gatsby's music room, we're in the Emerald City of Oz with a gigantic organ that only a maniac can play.
If this were all, this version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age classic would have failed, just as a number of tries in the past, such as the Mia Farrow/Robert Redford pastel love letter from the '70's. But Luhrmann has given Gatsby life while keeping the love story and its complications intact. I'm not going into the plot, since most of us know it from high school or the ads on tv, but...SPOILER ALERT...for all the visual and aural dazzle, this version doesn't end happily either. Leonardo DiCaprio seems to grow into Gatsby as the film intensifies. His dream is to recapture the love of his life, the now married Daisy Buchanan. His opulent palace and his parties are there in order to snare Daisy's attention. DiCaprio gives Jay Gatsby a tender shyness but also a rough intensity beneath his chic wardrobe, mostly in pastels. English actress Carey Mulligan manages to give the impossible role of Daisy a charm that overcomes her spoiled and unhappy demeanor. Both Tobey McGuire and Joel Edgerton as Nick and Daisy's brutish husband, respectively, are nuanced in what could have been cardboard cut-outs.
In the most dramatic and climatic scene at the Plaza Hotel, Tom challenges Gatsby and tells of his shady past, while Gatsby frantically urges Daisy to reveal their long love for each other. All of the principal actors display new aspects of their characters, including pain, hatred, and despair. But that's not all. We still have to drive back to East Egg and past the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that overlook the Valley of Ashes where Tom's mistress lives. And, if that symbolism is a bit heavy for you, you can thank Fitzgerald and all those thousands of English teachers, myself included.
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not a perfect adaptation or movie. The use of 3-D seems superfluous and the shots of the mansions across the lake resemble Thomas Kincaide at his worst (or best). But he both moves us and almost overwhelms us with his ode to love and excess, one that resonates in our day with its failing institutions, greedy stock manipulators, crooked politicos, and ever-declining morality. Fitzgerald tells us through these characters that we can't relive the past, but that doesn't keep Nick Carraway from delivering the famed last line: "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."