Baz Lurhmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby opened this weekend to mostly negative reviews from the critics. The criticisms were familiar: it was gaudy, it was tacky, it celebrated the very excesses F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novella chastised. The romance between Gatsby and Daisy was sentimentalized, the prose of the novel was awkwardly worked into the script. And so on and so forth.
Of all the criticisms I've read, I think only one really holds water: Luhrmann does sentimentalize the romance between Daisy and Gatsby in a way Fitzgerald never did. The Daisy of this movie (played with a porcelain delicacy by Carey Mulligan) is not the "careless people" Daisy of the novel. It's telling that one of the most famous lines about Daisy ("her voice is full of money") was dropped. Luhrmann certainly turned the Gatsby/Daisy connection into something more beautiful than Fitzgerald intended.
But otherwise, I thought this was an entertaining, faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel, and it will make many viewers read the novel again, or for the first time. No, the movie doesn't quite capture the hard, cynical edge of Fitzgerald's prose. It comes closest with the portrayal of Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brutish, racist man whose only appeal is his old money and social stature. But Luhrmann absolutely convey how beneath decadence, there can be a profound melancholy and emptiness. You can see this every year while watching the award shows -- the starlets weeping crocodile tears of "happiness" while repeating the same acceptance speech over and over again. You can see it in every college frat party that starts off with beer and girls aplenty and ends with people stumbling home drunk and puking. Lurhmann's filming of Gatsby's famous parties is masterful. The loud soundtrack (a mix of modern music by Jay-Z, Beyonce, Lana del Rey, Sia, and other artists), the party scenes (filmed in 3D), the colorful frocks serve as a wonderful backdrop for the introduction of Jay Gatbsy.
When Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally appears onscreen, he does so with the same twinkly smile that won hearts in Romeo + Juliet (also a Baz Luhrmann feature) and Titanic. But there's now creases under that smile. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is deliberately opaque -- all his mannerisms are supposed to add to his mystique. DiCaprio fleshes out Fitzgerald's outline in a way that's faithful to the book (he does a wonderful job affecting an international accent as he calls people "old sport"), but he also takes some acceptable creative licenses. This Gatsby has a desperation, even menace that Fitzgerald's character did not -- when DiCaprio is onscreen, you sense that despite the smile and the charm, this is a man at the end of his rope. DiCaprio has been repeatedly snubbed by the Academy Awards because in recent years he's chosen some very deliberately "actor-ish" projects (J. Edgar Hoover being Exhibit A) to mixed results. He's at his best when he's just a variation on "Leo" -- oozing charm with a hint of melancholy and desperation. He was "Leo" in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, Catch Me if You Can, The Departed, Django Unchained. There was a wonderful lack of pretense in those movies. In this movie, he's again just "Leo", and that's wonderful.
I also can't understand the criticism of Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway. Yes he's the dull straight man, but that's what Nick is in the novel -- a bystander and observer. Yes, the framing device of Nick being in a mental ward is ham-handed, but it's also a tribute to the real-life F. Scott Fitzgerald, who did end his life as a broken alcoholic. It is true that Lurhmann neglects the Nick/Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) romance but all screen adaptations have to streamline the subplots. I'm more grateful that the awful sleaziness of the Tom/Myrtle affair was kept intact, including the penthouse-converted into whorehouse party that Tom takes Nick to in the beginning of the novel. Actually, for every scene that Luhrmann missed or didn't get right, there are so many where he's pitch perfect. The climactic confrontation between Tom and Gatsby captured all the anger, desperation, and confusion that Fitzgerald depicted.
At the end of the day my criteria for judging a screen adaptation of a novel is, "Will viewers get it?" Lurhmann's film isn't perfect, but I think viewers will "get it." It's not like all those Jane Austen movie adaptations that turn Austen's sharp social satires into swoony romantic comedies. Luhrmann understands the essence of Fitzgerald's novel. Sometimes the execution isn't perfect, but you leave the movie understanding The Great Gatsby. I even like how sometimes Lurhmann simply types up the more meditative lines of the novel right onto the screen -- it's a little awkward, but it's an acknowledgment that a movie can only do so much. The audience in the theater was silent at the end of the movie -- bowled over, perhaps, by the uncompromising bleakness of Fitzgerald's story. And Fitzgerald's novel is as fresh today as it was in the 1920's. The idea that the American dream is really an American nightmare is one that rightly still makes people squirm. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past."