The old adage when it comes to art is “show, don’t tell.” The idea is that, by demonstrating rather than dictating, the audience is drawn in as participants instead of being kept at a distance by heavy-handed explication. But this advice can be taken too far: you can tell and show too much, forcing rather than leading, yelling rather than whispering. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master of showing just enough, but not too much. His prose doesn’t have the austerity of Hemingway’s — by comparison he can be downright florid — but nevertheless, the economy of his lines often reveal more in what they don’t say than in what they do. The Great Gatsby is a short book — most editions run to a mere 160 or so pages — but it’s in between Fitzgerald’s lines that we find the elements of a transcendent tale of love and ambition and tragedy and hope. This why Gatsby is transcendent — not because of the story we have set down before us on the page, but because of the story that we create in our minds. The Great Gatsby moves beyond a simple tale of a lovelorn bootlegger and becomes our story, the American story.
And this is where the rubber wheels of a roaring convertible coupe hit the road: Baz Luhrmann’s film version of the life of Gatsby not only tells us, it shows us, and shows us again and show us some more. He beats us over the head with that damn green light, he waves the camera back and forth in front of Eckleburg’s eyes again and again, he shows Gatsby reaching out into the air, reaching, reaching, reaching some more. Luhrmann shows us Gatsby’s childhood — no stone is left unturned in his rags-to-riches story. He shows us Gatsby’s and Daisy’s history together, he shows us Nicks’s fate in a sanatorium after the events of the story unfold, he shows us and he shows and he shows us until we know all the who’s and the why’s and the what’s and the how’s — but do we really know any of it? Is it ours? Or is this just another historical soap opera with literary roots?
Of course it’s all beautifully filmed; it’s a visual joy to experience. The parties and 1920’s excess were actually more restrained than I expected — this isn’t a prohibition-era version of Moulin Rouge. But the 3D was completely unnecessary: it darkens and blurs the entire production and even in the party scenes functions as little more than a superfluous distraction. I was fearful that cinematic acrobatics would subsume the story, but they don’t. The colors and textures and lighting are both past and present, here and now, old and new. Perhaps the cinematography and 3D effects only amount to a gimmicky facade, but then, isn’t that appropriate for this story?
As to the music: Jay-Z did an admirable job blending contemporary hip-hop with 1920’s style — it’s just plain fun to watch and listen to — which is why it’s ironic that I’m still going to complain about musical anachronisms. I don’t mind if a story set in 1922 features a soundtrack from 2013. But I do mind if it uses music that’s just slightly wrong for the time period: Ain’t Misbehavin’ and St. Louis Blues were recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1929 and Rhapsody in Blue wasn’t written until 1924. Their appearance in the film struck a discordant note; they were just enough out of sync to feel uncomfortable and their inclusion seemed downright sloppy.
Finally, the acting. Many characters made explicit reference to the 1974 version (as did many of the shots) — DiCaprio and Maguire at times seemed to directly channel Redford and Waterson, though Carey Mulligan was a pale imitation of Mia Farrow’s wilting Daisy. Elizabeth Debicki played a capable Jordan and Joel Edgerton’s Tom was the straight-forward stereotype that’s fitting of that character. In short, everyone did their job, but as with the movie as a whole, nothing pushed the tale to new heights (or thankfully, to new lows). And perhaps that is as it should be, for at its heart Gatsby is a tale of unsuccessful reinvention, of hope without fulfillment. Any retelling will always be bound by that constraint — the best it can do is cause us to remember the past, not repeat it.