[REVIEW] The Great Gatsby, May 2013.

Baz Luhrmann has taken the aesthetic he used for Moulin Rouge, the least French film ever made about Paris, and transplanted it to 1920s New York. The CGI is worse than a Doctor Who werewolf, but the costumes are stunning and I’ve spent much of today fashion-googling ‘great gatsby clothes’ with a sense of moral disgust, and that, I suppose, is the sign of a good Fitzgerald adaptation.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy.

The central performances are reasonably faithful to the book. Tobey Maguire is constipatedly uninteresting – which is right for Nick Carraway, even if the elimination of queer subtext in his interactions with McKee and Gatsby is a predictable disappointment (but then, this is Luhrmann, who de-gayed Decadent Paris). Carey Mulligan is beautiful, wispy and infuriating – just right for Daisy. Elizabeth Debicki is understated and underused as Jordan, which is annoying for the cinemagoer but actually an improvement on the book. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan looks like Benedict Cumberbatch’s hardboiled, horsewhipping older brother. Isla Fisher’s Myrtle is a spectacular improvement on the book’s two-dimensional whore. And Leonardo di Caprio? Well, he’s still a great actor, but now his face has gone orange and odd.

Di Caprio’s face is one of a triumvirate of masculine tragedies I’ve endured this week. First, I found out that Noel Fielding is forty. Then I started googling and discovered that Johnny Depp was fifty. I dealt with that a little better, having accepted that Hugh Grant and Colin Firth (for example) are in their mid-fifties by now – and that, God’s honest truth, there are UK citizens of legal voting age who weren’t born at the time of the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Depp’s slightly purple hair, tinted spectacles and twentysomething girlfriend already signalled a slow crawl towards decrepitude. And then I saw what’s happened to di Caprio’s face.

If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, or indeed any Luhrmann film, you’ve already seen 25% of The Great Gatsby. There are moments where Tobey Maguire looks exactly like Ewan McGregor and entire sequences where Carey Mulligan sounds like Nicole Kidman. There’s a great deal of on-screen typing which, apart from a clever dissolve into snowflakes, gives me the feeling that cinema would be a better place if Luhrmann could get over his font fetish.

For all this, I really enjoyed myself. The anxious speedathons of the driving sequences left me feeling motion-sick, and Oxford’s Magdalen Street Odeon had done something infuriating with the sound levels; nevertheless, I’d watch it again tomorrow, and I’m not sure why. People are going to call this film romantic, and it isn’t; regardless of Nick’s celebration of Gatsby’s capacity for hope, it’s a story about a monomaniac’s near-psychotic love for a debutante who struggles to choose between her two abusers. All the characters in this film push capitalism to its logical conclusion: a disposable culture which disposes of its victims, as portrayed by Myrtle, Wilson, Gatsby’s servants and Gatsby himself.

I have read – and this is a weird story in itself – the third of the Fifty Shades trilogy. It’s immensely boring (see also: misogynist, degrading), cataloguing not only sex I don’t want to have but a range of consumer durables I don’t want to buy. It’s like pages of an in-flight magazine pasted between stills from a porn film. Amidst the sex, the characters eat some very nice meals and do some very extensive shopping.

Gatsby and E. L. James are not so very far apart; they both assume, rightly, that as well as the sex, they’re going to need a lot of food, drink, and conspicuous capitalism, if they’re going to get (their version of) the (money-minded, shallow, easily distracted) girl. Both Christian Gray and Jay Gatsby set the bar very low when it comes to female agency, intuition and discernment. Perhaps I’m doing Daisy a disservice; she got ludicrously turned on by Gatsby’s Disneyland Hotel playhouse, but then, so did Elizabeth Bennet in the shades of Pemberley. And in the last instance, Daisy does have the wit to realise that Gatsby’s dictatorial fantasy of their life together (although a partial product of her betrayal) is every bit as dangerous as her known misery with Tom.

The Great Gatsby is full of toxic colour, gratuitous bling, and over-saturated fireworks. It doesn’t travesty the culture of its setting in the same way as Moulin Rouge, because if austerity’s taught us anything, it’s that the capitalist boom before a financial crash (in this case, Wall Street 1928) deserves all the desecration it can get. Morning-after vignettes – of a man dredging the swimming pool for tinsel, and a servant emptying martinis into a bucket – give the party sequences more depth – sequences, incidentally, which make Frears’s Bright Young Things (2003) seem like it wasn’t really trying. Di Caprio’s comic timing and emotional commitment come as close as anything can to giving The Great Gatsby heart and soul, and if I’m tired of Luhrmann’s cinematic tics (great though it is when an artist wears his id on his sleeve), I’m glad he’s still a fan of the grandiose close-up and that, in his first reunion with Mulligan’s Daisy, di Caprio, as Gatsby remains star enough to sustain one.

I would also, admittedly, like to do my eye make-up like Casey Mulligan’s, and have a head small enough to wear cloche hats. Someone throw a disgustingly vast party, please, and in the meantime, make mine a Highball.

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6 thoughts on “[REVIEW] The Great Gatsby, May 2013.

  1. You’re calling Myrtle a whore because she’s having an affair? Why no mention of Tom’s infidelity? It very much took two to tango in the book, AND Tom was a violent controlling man to boot. He is infinitely worse than her. To pick her up on it but make no mention of Tom’s part is pretty short-sighted.

    I’d also contest that film!Myrtle is not an improvement on book!Myrtle, purely because Luhrmann erased the fact that she’s meant to be heavy-set. Way to keep on perpetuating society’s image of ‘attractive = thin”, Lurhmann.

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    • WTF. That’s not what the writer said at all. Plus, we (I say this as a poor fat woman) don’t benefit from having a 2D character like Myrtle, whose death matters because it’s a plot point that affects the love story between the thin pretty white characters, be fat AS WELL as poor. And to have that as ANOTHER reason why she dies. If she’d been fat it’d just have been that the fat girl has to die. Maybe that’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald intended, but I don’t want that shitty sizeism replicated. Myrtle being fat wouldn’t change her characterization in the film, just the take-home message about how as a fat woman your only place is dead in the road when it comes to the beautiful people. The standard of attractive = thin sucks, but we already know that. And it’s there in the book, Tom would always choose Daisy over Myrtle.

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    • I think the version of Myrtle that Nick narrates in the book is more reductive than the performance Isla Fisher gave (and, from what I remember of it, the Myrtle in the film version which starred Toby Stephens as the world’s least probable Gatsby). I don’t think Myrtle’s a whore. I think she’s portrayed as little better by Nick’s narration in the book.

      I’d forgotten that the book version of Myrtle is meant to be overweight/heavy-set; you’re quite right. Retaining it would have been a more faithful nod to the adaptation – but I’m not sure that ‘sole fat character in film is the one who ends up beaten by her husband and run over by ultra-thin wife of lover, body flying through the air, n.b. ultra-thin wife is the one who survives’ was, or would be a particularly great message, either. Plus, since the vast majority of cinema-goers worldwide will engage with the film in lieu of the book, or ahead of reading the book, or with only minimal knowledge of the book (I don’t think this matters; I’m just pointing out probabilities), I don’t think that image would have registered as an instance of textual fidelity so much as an image of the only visibly larger woman in the film ending up gorily dead whilst people rush to protect the thin little blonde girl, in a world where there will be no retribution.

      This isn’t to say that I think it was a moral good of Luhrmann to change Myrtle’s weight in the casting, because I don’t. I just don’t see Fitzgerald’s depiction of [the mistress who gets brutalised, then killed] as fat as a morally good or fat-positive gesture in the first place. But you’ve reminded me of a detail I’d forgotten, and complicated my thinking, so – thanks.

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    • Charlotte: I KNOW. I’m 26, and yet I feel like I need to go round The Young with flashcards, saying things like ‘this is Jarvis Cocker’; ‘this is a dial-up modem’; ‘this is a football sticker showing a player from Sheffield Wednesday; we kept these in albums but I don’t know why’.

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