Since The Great Gatsby is my go-to answer for my favourite book, I suppose I should weigh in on my thoughts on the new trailer just released. But the short answer is that it told us very little; it proved all my predictions while only allaying a few of my fears.
Cards on the table – I am a great fan of Baz Luhrmann’s work – he manages to continually be bold, idiosyncratic and unconventional, in an industry that heavily punishes all three. I’ve always felt he was a good match for Gatsby, and Gatsby generally a good match for him. Luhrmann excels at creating textual worlds, dense in their hyperreality: he did it spectacularly with Verona Beach in Romeo and Juliet (where billboards offered up Prospero Cola) and with the illusory remembered Paris of Le Grande Epoque in Moulin Rouge; creating the impression of the Jazz Age just as Fitzgerald did is a task perhaps only he is worthy of tackling. Naturally, then, his Jazz Age New York is centre stage and the grand star of the credit’s opening, living large, in the same hyper-colours and clean lines as Peter Jackson’s in King Kong, but with more swing. Moulin Rouge also showed he knew how to film excess in a way that was both vulgar and enticing; naturally his version of Gatsby’s revelries are the most exciting we’ve seen portrayed, inviting the viewer for once to actually want to be there.
The typical criticisms have already appeared about using rap music, and should be ignored for being as infantile and racist as they always are. Modern music is no more out of place in a period film than it is to have Spartacus speaking English, and rap music has so many parallels to jazz it would be ridiculous not to use its language in a film like this. And Baz is not simply jumping for the obvious – most of the trailer is underscored with a fairly obscure U2 song, “Love is Blindness” which is lovely in its thick, despondent sense of menace, its portrayal of the destructive, toxic nature of affection, naturally undercutting the vivacity and playfulness of the images, hinting with the camera angles and pauses of the shadows beneath the style. Which we needed because, along with the dazzling Art Deco and gorgeous cityscapes, it was beginning to look like there would be no rotten veneer underneath at all. But Baz is building to it, and he seems to get there.
We can also be sure Luhrmann will handle the symbolism deftly – if we can have Prospero Cola and the green fairy of absinthe appearing literally, the Eyes of Dr Mecklenberg will be child’s play. I liked seeing Nick and Gatsby on the dock itself, bringing the metaphor onto centre stage. Again, Luhrmann goes beyond just the obvious.
I’ve been worrried about DiCaprio, but he looks to be strong in the role. His great curse as an actor – his inescapably boyish looks, that made him look so clownish as an old J. Edgar Hoover – are here an asset to highlighting the Peter Pan nature of the character. He also looks sufficiently small and humbled in the presence of Daisy. The weak parts come where (as in Edgar) he must play the villain, because he has so little menace. That may, however, end up being a virtue. It depends on how much romance Baz demands of the story.
Script-wise, we hew closer to the book than ever – if we can judge by the trailer, Jordan has the largest role ever in this version, Owl-Eyes and Klipspringer get a showing, Daisy seems constantly about to stumble over in confusion, which is an improvement on Mia Farrow’s stunned-mullet approach, Wolfsheim is pulled forward to provide the menace DiCaprio can’t – but in tone, the trailer still seems quite romantic. Romance is where Baz’s head lives, and even his dark endings are epic tragic ones, and as such tend to ride very close to farce. Many chuckled when DiCaprio wept in the dirt in Romeo and Juliet, and I never felt the tragedy of Sabine’s death in Moulin Rouge was really honest because the first half of the film had worked so hard to clothe her in cartoonish style. It is so easy to miss the point with Gatsby and turn it into a tale of good versus evil, of dreams dashed and love pure and untramelled even when it loses against the foul cheap dust of the world, and Lurhmann is easily seduced by such tragic tales. But in the end it is common humanity that ties the book together, that reveals the jazz age as a tawdry sham and exposes even the glittering Daisy as a monster, in the pettiest and most pathetic sense, that turns the end from a romantic tragedy into a slideshow holocaust of banality. Edgerton is talented and seems to know to play Tom down but we have images of him and Gatsby coming to blows, and the whole point is Tom doesn’t need to do that. He wins without firing a shot because he has money, and Gatsby doesn’t. I think Baz wants him to be a moustache twirler like all his other villains – Richard Roxburgh and Bill Hunter, for example. But Tom is far too much a vacuum to be a melodramatic beast, and any suggestion of it usually takes away Daisy’s culpability in all of it.
In short, Baz is like Gatsby, he believes in love, in the orgiastic future, that even when facile, even when dangerous there is power in dreams; but I always felt the book was about hate, about the smallness of people, about the shallowness of even a brilliant, glorious dream – yet hopeful because of that, because beneath the artifice are a few simple human things worth caring about. Finding that in a film would be difficult for any director; and while Baz has got a great cast and a gorgeous eye, I feel his mountain of gold and glamour will make it hard to find a heart of anything, no matter how shadowed and shallow he makes it.
But the shirts – the shirts made me smile.