Death in expensive decorations (The Great Gatsby movie review)

When the most famous of Scott’s Fitzgerald’s books “The Great Gatsby” was published, it was considered the most complete picture of so called “lost generation” that was entering the adulthood in the years of the First Wold War. Its protagonist, Jay Gatsby, is a man of dreams that embodies the scheme “from zero to hero”. He is a parvenu who was lucky enough to reach a great, almost ridiculous fortune, which became a camouflage for his past. Nevertheless, at the end he turned out to be a victim of an American cliché about happiness that is available for anyone. Dreams about romantic love, splendour, and – last but not least – respected social position led Gatsby to one of the most tragic disappointments that the literature characters have ever experienced. Baz Luhrmann in his cinema adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece created breath-taking visualisations of the writer’s descriptions of the world that shines like a box made of diamonds but is empty inside. Unfortunately, despite of absolutely stunning visual spectacles the movie has not much more to offer…

The director doesn’t remain very close to the original, but – what’s important – his interpretation is not totally detached from Fitzgerald’s story. New York that we see on the screen is not the real city that the writer was trying to paint in his words. Luhrmann tries to do both – capture the spirit of the epoch and make Gatsby’s (great Leonardo DiCaprio) villa and famous parties familiar to the image of kitschy splendour that modern audience can identify with. That’s why the aesthetics of the movie is composed as a postmodern collage – on the one hand we see costumes and cars from 20’s, on the other hand – the characters are dancing to contemporary music. Such a small, subtle modification makes the entire story more universal and is one of the best decisions that the director has made.

Luhrmann focuses on Gatsby’s obsession that is caused by both – love and faith in the idea of American dream. Knowing that Daisy (very good Carey Mulligan) has married another man because she couldn’t (didn’t want to) wait for him to become someone rich and important, he collects material goods and organises parties full of glamor, glitter and expansive champagne – everything for a woman of his dreams. What’s important, the director doesn’t present Jay as a man whose mind and heart were destroyed by capitalism, but as a very tragic character who knows the rules of the world that lives in and decides to play a role of a walking embodiment of all American dreams. For the New York elite he is like a materialistic god that offers never-ending fun but was never seen. As Gatsby avoids revealing both – his face and his story, people create different legends around him that are supposed to explain the source of his incredible fortune. The protagonist life is made of appearances that he creates and lets to be created. Confrontation with truth could ruin the subtile and spectacular illusion.

But the tragedy of Gatsby doesn’t lies in weakness for fame, splendour, and pretending to be someone else, but in his own philosophy of life and time that couldn’t convince other people to follow. The protagonist negates succession of time – he keeps repeating that we can turn it back, undo mistakes, and begin again without treating the past as an unchangeable fact. When the most of the world believes in the process of constant change that leads to death, Gatsby notices that decorations may be changing, but the essence remains the same. Luhrmann seems to be on his side and that’s why he constructs the movie as a visual allegory of this invariability and plays hip hop on a party from 1920. We listen to different bands, wear different clothes, but experience of being blinded by the promise of democratic, available success or of domination of nihilistic materialism is not being redefined by time.

The portrait of Gatsby is with no doubts the best part of this movie that unfortunately at end looks like a spectacular but too long and too wearisome metaphor. The director focuses on making a show and even turns his actors into its elements – they seem to be parts of the stunning scenography, not necessarily living creatures from one of the greatest books of last century. Luhrmann takes from Fitzgerald the inspiration for incredible visual performance, but doesn’t use the potential of characters and their stories. That’s why the ending sequence instead of being dramatic is pretty grotesque. The grotesque is not subversive here, but only effective.