I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would have shit a Duesenberg had he seen Baz Luhrman’s film, “The Great Gatsby;” I think Zelda would have loved it.
Luhrman has definitely put his particular spin on the classic book. There are bright colors and surreal, almost hellish scenes of people imbibing to the point of grotesqueness. Hip-hop music accompanies Roaring 20’s party montages, and the incongruous music and rapid jump cuts give a sense of doomed excitement.
What Luhrman does so wonderfully, though, is gradually tone-down the images and music on the screen. By the film’s end, the colors are incredibly subdued; the hip-hop left behind. In the novel, that’s exactly what happened to life at Gatsby’s. The parties ended, the glamour faded. All of the magic, all of the pageantry filtered down to a simple love story, that of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.
Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a wealthy-beyond-belief playboy, with a huge pleasure palace on Long Island. He hosts lavish parties for guests he doesn’t know. The only person he ever invites is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who rents a tiny house next door (an old gardener’s shack)–everyone else just shows up. Nick’s cousin, Daisy—the object of Gatsby’s longing—lives across Long Island Sound. From his dock, Gatsby stares across at the green light flashing on the Buchanans’s own dock.
Gatsby has been in love with Daisy (Carey Mulligan) for five years, before he was shipped off to World War I. While Gatsby was overseas, Daisy married an old-money heir, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), an arrogant, macho jackass who treats Daisy like an annoying pet, while he has dalliances with other women.
Gatsby convinces Nick to invite Daisy over for tea one afternoon. Gatsby “happens” to stop by, and the one-time couple are reunited.
This sets up the rest of the movie, where Gatsby and Daisy’s love grows, recriminations fester, and a violent tragedy ensues.
Odds are, if you’ve you’re interested in seeing this film, you’ve probably read the novel, and you’re wondering how it does as an adaptation. The answer is, it’s terrible. And it’s awesome.
In the beginning, I was worried that “Gatsby” was going to be a full-bore Baz Luhrman sensory explosion, like “Moulin Rouge,” but it wasn’t. Looking back having finished the film, the audiovisual madness at the beginning conveys the surreal nature of the early Jazz Age. It was a different world then. Women drank, smoked, and actually enjoyed having sex. Compared to the 1910’s, the 20’s would have felt just like the mayhem Baz Luhrman puts on the screen.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s colorful and exciting, and a fresh twist on an old classic.
But Lurhman shows surprising restraint as he allows Fitzgerald’s story to expand. He remains fairly faithful to the novel, and he cast the film perfectly.
When I first heard Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Jay Gatsby, I nodded my head. “Well, sure. That makes perfect sense.” He was perfectly cast, although I’m not sure the screenwriters were quite sure what to do with him. Tobey Maguire was note-perfect as Nick Carraway, who carries the heart of the film. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy was another good performance, capturing Daisy’s complicated nature, and the schism between the bored rich society woman and the unjaded ingénue who first loved Gatsby five years before.
All in all, this film really impressed me. It’s hard to adapt a novel so many people have read, and not have large groups excoriate you for something. I think Luhrman did a great job updating the story in his own inimitable style, while retaining the malaise that hung over the novel like a mist. The glamour of the fast life was everywhere. So was the wisdom Nick Carraway learned the hard way, that the fast life was simply a long ride to nowhere.
(The Great Gatsby, co-written and directed by Baz Luhrman; Rated PG-13, probably because people were always smoking and drinking, and there’s some violence here and there; also, I appropriated the clause “recriminations fester” from a Pete Townshend song called “Slit Skirts,” simply because it’s a beautiful turn-of-phrase and an awesome song (thanks, Pete))