Arts & Culture: The Great Gatsby

Guest post by Nadia Ramoul

I have agonized for weeks now over reviewing Baz Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby. The hours have crawled by as I stare, almost defeated, at a cold, blank Word sheet. The glaring white taunts me, laughing like so many distorted flapper girls dancing in a Beyonce time warp. I am troubled, dear reader, very troubled.

My trouble lies is the fact that I was absolutely certain I would hate this film. So certain in fact, that upon hearing of its inception, posted a snide little blog entry bemoaning the whole sorry affair.

While I claimed to want to ‘give it a chance,’ in truth I was practically rubbing my hands together with spiteful glee, gagging to join the predictable flood of animosity towards it. But now, while I still believe the words ‘Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby in 3D’ should never have been uttered or even considered, I am rendered somewhat speechless. In no way was the movie good, let’s not be ridiculous, but in no way was it particularly offensive either. It just was. My gripe is that I have no gripe.

Admittedly it’s childish to want to hate something so vehemently that you would shell out an obscene amount of money on 3D glasses and limp nachos with the sole purpose of crowing afterwards that you knew the film was going to suck and it did, etc, but this is Gatsby. This is the book. Supposedly unfilmable, beautiful and brief, it stands as a glorious monument to the power of American literature and the raw cruelty of human nature.


Luhrmann’s version doesn’t even try to represent this hulking, subtle power. Rather it does exactly what you expect it to – and what I, for one expected to be repulsed by – stylizes the thing to shit with gaudy choreography and beats the viewer senseless with plot points and buzzwords as though you’re too hopelessly dense to pick up on what is happening. The green light is alluded to ad infinitum and the eyes of Dr. T.J Eckleburg loom large as the face of God himself over and over, reducing a brilliant narrative device to a hackneyed, overdone metaphor. Somehow though, I was not repulsed. Like Gatsby himself, the excess was strangely endearing.

While DiCaprio admittedly does a pretty brilliant job of humanizing the titular character and pulling out some of the fevered desperation of the novel, he seems constantly at odds with the clunky direction and swooping camerawork. It is as though the settings themselves collude to drown him out entirely and reduce him to a pretty face. The casting of Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, however, is inspired. She is as sinewy and aloof as her original inception, propelling the plot forward with intermittent bursts of excitement before withdrawing completely.


The  remaining cast could easily be paper dolls, propped up against lavish backdrops and pulled on glittering strings to glide from one immaculate setting to the next while the real meat of the story is left to fester, untouched, elsewhere. Tobey Maguire is an almost transparent Nick Carraway, doe-eyed and bewildered to the point of irritation. He floats from scene to scene, devoid of any reaction. He is ‘within and without,’ yes, but almost entirely without. He belies no emotion, no soul whatsoever. His rage, which should be palpable and authentic when it appears, is a half-absent whimper.

Somehow though, this soullessness was not all that unpleasant. Once I let go of the fact that this film bore little revelation to the beloved novel I could almost enjoy it for what it was; a big dumb spectacle, completely absorbed by its own luxurious stylization. Perhaps here sits Luhrmann’s genius? In making everything seem an excruciatingly obvious façade, he is truly representing what Fitzgerald grew to despise? An entire selfish falsehood that you can’t really bring yourself to care about until maybe the very, very end? Perhaps. It is this thought that prevents me from hating it.


In a way, it is a Sparknotes version of Gatsby; the subtle yet grand nuances behind the dialogue hammered out to make way for quotes literally appearing on screen. All the soul of the narrative sucked out to remind you of the key points over and over again like preparation for a GCSE English paper. There is no room for ambiguity, no room for contemplation, just bombast to the point of parody. The ludicrous road scenes and clunky choices to punctuate events (when Gatsby first appears there are fireworks. Fireworks. Seriously. Ugh) are little more than an overblown music video accompanying some very questionable tunes.

The only time the film steps up to the source material is in the New York flat, as Gatsby and Tom confront eachother. It is here that the director seems to pull away and let his cast truly act. It is honestly quite something, infinitely more absorbing than the spangly party scenes.

The film bemused and maddened, sure, but not to the extent that it could be considered bad. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is akin to Gatsby himself; an impressive spectacle, but little more.