Watching Baz Luhrmann’s new film The Great Gatsby feels like chugging an entire bottle of cheap champagne: A giddy, fantastic, sugar rush quickly becomes a morose headache.
The film starts as a lascivious cartoon of the Jazz Age, remixing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s high school literature classic with slick sensibilities and a Jay Z soundtrack that makes for a helluva good time. But spectacle soon fades to schlock. The film pops its cork and becomes self-serious, trying to pour its bubbly aesthetic into an epic tale of love and money and instead just going flat.
By the end, I wasn’t touched by the story of lost love, I was trying to keep my eyes open and hoping my head from wouldn’t explode the next time Leonardo di Caprio tacked “old sport” onto the end of a line.
One of the problems here is the main female character Daisy. The source material doesn’t do her any favors, with Fitzgerald both loving the glamorous image of flappers and fearing the upsetting social change they stood for. Daisy is the linchpin of the film. Both her new-money, old-lover Jay Gatsby and her old-money, new-husband Tom Buchanan bring on tragedy by seeking to possess her, not because of who she is but who they see themselves to be reflected in her eyes. Unfortunately, both the original book and the new film are told from the male perspective, so the audience never sees more than a shallow projection of who Daisy might be. While the film is meant to be a critique of Tom and Gatsby’s desperate lust for controlling Daisy, it falls into the same trap of seeing her only as an object of desire.
Actress Carey Mulligan plays Daisy very well and succeeds at getting a little personality in edgewise. Daisy doesn’t come off as the hysterical, consumerist flapper I remember from the book, but a dull, rich, beautiful woman who has been taught to hold her tongue. We first see her in the film from the perspective of her cousin, narrator Nick Carraway, who comes upon her in a grand room swirling with white silks, lounging and giggling on a sofa. He describes her as a woman who makes a man feel like the best person in the world when she looks at him—and that’s the primary role she’s assigned for the remainder of the script. Mulligan sneaks in some sass, though. When Tom soon spouts off a pseudo-scientific racist remark, Daisy responds, “Tom’s very profound lately. He reads deep books with long words in them.”
Later, staring out at the day with Nick, Daisy utters the famous line, “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Daisy seems to run deeper than the men around her give her credit for—she’s playing the fool, but the film never gives the audience the chance to see she isn’t one. Instead, she occupies an accessory position in a film that resembles Gatsby’s own “huge, incoherent house.”
The other problem with the film is that it seems to entirely miss the book’s criticism of consumerism. Though the early scene of a drunken sex party in sweltering New York is so outrageous that it becomes grotesque (screeching women! Feathers everywhere! A guy with a trumpet who won’t shut up!) the film is prominently sponsored by Brooks Brothers, Tiffany’s, and Prada. Narrator Nick Carraway winds up in rehab for alcoholism, an irony that seems lost on film sponsor Moet & Chandon. But besides that end of Nick, the film does nothing to beat against the current. There’s no lesson that all this 1920s extravagance is problematic. The message is to party like a rock star and dress like a robber baron—just don’t waste all your money chasing a woman who waffles.
The audience, too, is better off spending its ticket money on a quality drink.