Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and I have been involved since high school. Okay, that makes it sound like an illicit relationship – and perhaps that’s rather appropriate given The Great Gatsby is a story about the excess and hedonism of the 1920’s, but let me start again.
The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books. It’s one of my favorites, because it stands the test of time. I read it once in high school, twice in college, and once last week. Each time, I find a new surprise laced within the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel. In high school, it was simply the eloquence, style, and movement of the prose. The first time in college, I was captivated by the damage and injury that nearly all the characters enjoy during that brief summer. The second time I read Gatsby in college, I was haunted by the story and suddenly became aware of ghostly imagery throughout – so much so I wrote my senior thesis claiming that Gatsby is, in fact, a ghost story hearkening back to the Gothic tradition. Last week, I was struck by the torturous juxtaposition of possession and insecurity, predominantly through Tom Buchanan’s character and later in the novel, of course, through Jay Gatsby.
Naturally, I read the book last week in order to prepare myself for the release of Baz Luhrmann’s silver screen take on the classic novel. I’ve had impassioned discussions with my boyfriend about this story. I got excited at the prospect of a classic novel making a modern splash. The star power behind this movie is staggering, which promised good performances, if nothing else.
My humble opinion? Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is good. Simply good, which is why the title of this blog post is aptly named “The (Sometimes) Great Gatsby.”
Because some of it was great – like the cast and star power behind this film.
(SPOILER ALERT – READ NO FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS FILM YET AND WOULD LIKE TO DO SO WITHOUT MY OPINION IN YOUR BRAIN)
I must admit, Leonardo DiCaprio was a perfect Gatsby. He took care to play the anti-hero as a truly complicated and multi-dimensional man. He was at times beautiful and charismatic and hopeful (he looked so young – it took me back to his Titanic days); at times vulnerable and insecure (his anxiety when meeting Daisy for the first time in five years was hilarious and stripped down his façade beautifully); and at times frightening – exposing the innate violence lurking beneath the exterior of a well-oiled machine of a man. I really couldn’t ask for more. He truly was a great Gatsby.
Toby Maguire was adorable as Nick Carraway, the eager newcomer to the big, bad city who is placed willingly into the world of liquor, girls, and betrayal. However, his older self, the narrator who peppers the film with asides, fell a little flat for me. I felt like he was trying to “age” his voice too much instead of just trying to sound jaded and affected.
Carey Mulligan had the perfect eyes to play Daisy Buchanan, the kind that can easily put a spell on you and draw you in (and the camera work made sure they did). She easily vacillated between characterizations of a woman of youthful leisure and a caged bird – jaded, unhappy, and fully aware of it.
Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan was walking, hulking, slick machismo. I believed he could bench press me, was very set in his ways, and could explode at a moment’s notice.
Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker was stunning, intimidating, and jaunty. I kind of wanted to go out for drinks with her. My feminist studies in college have made me love characters and women like her.
Additionally, there were moments when dialogue or certain lines came to life on the screen in a way that they never did in my imagination. For instance, Debicki took care during the scene when she is introduced to look like she in balancing something on her chin – a truly lovely nuance and a throwback to the original text. Daisy’s wish for a “beautiful little fool” was more genuine and harrowing coming from Mulligan’s lips than it ever was in my head. When Tom tells Gatsby “you can buy just about anything at a drug store nowadays,” it was tinged with malice and knowing – not at all subtle and very effective. There were some wonderful choices in terms of delivery and characterization. Homage was paid where needed.
And we all know that Baz Luhrmann can throw one hell of a party. He’s proved it to us twice before in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. His fetes are always fresh and interesting, a feast for the eyes. I would find myself focusing on something in the background of the party scenes and asking myself, “Is that really happening? Yes, that man did just jump backward into the fountain.” It’s orgiastic. It’s excess. And it’s borderline frightening. By truly pushing the envelope and making these scenes over-the-top, we see what a circus frivolity can create. And it’s enticing – but vapid. For a story famous for its criticism of materialism, Luhrmann’s parties are just about right.
And dear Lord, the clothes!!! I can only imagine how many designers and seamstresses and fabric specialists and countless other people were involved in the creation of these beautiful garments. Suits, fascinators, gowns, headpieces – truly overwhelming, provocative, and beautiful.
The soundtrack was hit or miss for me. I knew this film would be soaked in hits by Jay-Z and (probably) Beyonce (which I kind of liked the concept of – I mean, pop and hip hop royalty + a story about excess + the coincidence that is Jay-Z and Jay Gatsby). At times the fusion of modern music with a hip hop/R&B twist was really nice. A cover of “Crazy in Love” by Emile Santé during one of the party scenes was familiar but not – a cool touch.
Additionally, the jarring quality of mixing modern hip hop/R&B and roaring 20’s blues and jazz worked to add some horror to scenes of excess and overindulgence (see Tom and Myrtle’s party at the city apartment – if I were tripping on acid, I would expect to hear something pretty similar).
The song written specifically for the soundtrack, Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” – the song playing while Gatsby first gives Daisy a tour of his mansion and showers her in his luxurious wardrobe (my favorite scene of the movie) – is a piece of pure genius. The chorus echoes, “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” And that is really the question, right? If all of these people removed the frivolity of their lives, would they still seek connection with each other? The song is remixed during one of the party scenes. It sounds different but carries the same message, solidifying the theme.
But then there were times when the music flopped. “Izzo (H.O.V.E.)” had no place in The Great Gatsby, especially not in its context, a scene where a car driven by a white man with Black passengers partying and drinking champagne passes by Tom and Gatsby on their way into the city. Now, I get it, especially because of the line Nick delivers during this scene – “‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought, ‘anything at all…’ Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.” In a time fraught with racism and segregation, this image of “reverse slavery” hits the nail on the head (an image from the book, no less). If it had been accompanied with 20’s music (or even a fusion), it would have worked for me. In my opinion, the use of “Izzo” made it a caricature and played on some stereotypes that made the scene less impactful. There were other instances when the clash of modern and past pulled me out of the story, too. Really great in concept, but it threatened to derail the train a few times.
There were a few liberties Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, the co-writer of the screenplay, took that I was none too thrilled about. First of all, Nick Carraway in a sanatorium, telling the story of Gatsby to his shrink because he can no longer function as a human being? I didn’t like that take. Yes, Nick is haunted by the story of Gatsby and he is forever changed by the events of the summer, but it’s a quiet haunting. There’s something about a man and a page that screams sanctuary. I would have preferred Nick to be telling his story to a close friend over some drinks or a meal (i.e. – Life of Pi) – or to have been a solitary man at a typewriter than a broken man in a loony bin.
Additionally, I don’t like that Nick is locked away for alcoholism, sleeplessness, and sudden fits of rage, all characteristics of Gatsby, mind you. And yet Gatsby and Carraway are two very different characters with very different fates. Gatsby dies; Nick gets out alive (literally and metaphorically). So why give Nick Gatsby’s attributes? It doesn’t make sense.
However, I do appreciate that portions of this film were dedicated to Nick reading his work aloud so that the beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose had the chance to shine through. Especially the final line of the book, which is – appropriately – the last line of the movie – “So we beat on, boats again the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The story doesn’t exist without that line.
I also had a bit of an issue with the scene where Nick meets Meyer Wolfsheim for the first time. I wanted that to be a quiet, awkward lunch that foreboding and off-kilter, but still grounded in a strange reality. Instead, Luhrmann decided to invite us to another party. Dare I say I wanted a tad of restraint at times during this film? Quiet, interesting moments can speak volumes and there were a few moments when Luhrmann did make that choice – but this wasn’t one of them. I feel like parts of that lunch got lost in the whirlwind of the speakeasy setting.
Additionally, the delivery of this story was way too reminiscent of Moulin Rouge. And I won’t fault Luhrmann for that. The way The Great Gatsby unfolds is very similar to Moulin Rouge and Gatsby was Fitzgerald’s creation, not Luhrmann’s. They both open with someone troubled; they take to a typewriter to cope; someone dear to them dies; they are forever haunted or changed – jaded in both instances, funny enough. I wish Luhrmann had put out another movie between Moulin Rouge and Gatsby so that the tie between them wasn’t so distinct, because in a weird way I feel cheated – or like Luhrmann was a little lazy, which I’m sure wasn’t the case. Just too similar.
When all is said and done, and despite everything he did right, I probably won’t watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby again. The film version of this story will never resonate the way the novel does. And that’s no fault of Luhrmann. I don’t think anyone else could have been as successful in adapting this classic novel to the silver screen, but…
Simply put, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is too damn beautiful to be anything but a classic novel for word nerdy girls like me.