5/16/2013 - Baz Luhrmann takes your high school reading assignment and sprinkles it with razzle dazzle in his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a thoroughly entertaining red velvet cupcake of a movie.
I don’t think it’s fair (to the movie or to us in the audience) to always have to debate the source material, but in the case of The Great Gatsby it seems unavoidable. How you feel about the book — love it, hate it, barely remember it — is likely to have some bearing on whether or not you plan to see the movie and what you think of it when you do. It’s the greatest novel ever written about the American dream — so I’ve read in a couple of places in the last few weeks.
I can absolutely see the argument for that, but I can also see the argument for Gatsby being, as one of my college professors once said, junk. I believe the words “green light” can sum up the basis for the latter position. And yes, returning to West Egg and East Egg and the Valley of Ashes now as an adult, the story can start to feel a little bit like Intro to Symbolism. But, like that slightly embarrassing green light, this fable about America draws you in.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is telling us his tale of the summer spent soaking in the wealth of 1922 New York City from a sanitarium where he is being treated for “morbid alcoholism” years later. Arriving from the Midwest to work in the bond business, Nick rents a cottage out in new-money West Egg. He is soon sucked into the orbits of two extravagantly wealthy households. The first is that of the Buchanans — Tom (Joel Edgerton), a friend from college, and Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin. Tom, an old-money jerk with no real occupation, spends his days having an affair with Myrtle (Ilsa Fisher), the garish wife of a car mechanic, as Daisy is well aware.
The second is that of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the owner of the enormous mansion next door to Nick’s small house. Gatsby throws parties that dwarf the word “lavish” but is a mystery to most of his guests. Nick is invited to one and meets Gatsby, who draws him into his world as a means of helping Gatsby set up a meeting at Nick’s house with Daisy. Gatsby met Daisy during the war and has harbored an epic love for her ever since.
Which got me thinking about Twilight. No, no, I’m not comparing Gatsby to Twilight — I think they take away your bachelor’s degree if you do that. But not unlike those of certain vampires, Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy, which can seem tragically romantic, are also straight-up crazy and stalkerish. He can’t just be in love with Daisy; he has to possess her in this complete and unrealistic way that actually leads to his unraveling. It’s a kind of crazy (here’s where the Twilight comes in) that is particularly resonant to younger readers. (Whereas I kept wondering about the Buchanan’s young daughter and where she fit in to Gatsby’s plans.)
I don’t remember anything — the 1974 movie, any classroom discussion — ever really examining the craziness of Gatsby the way the movie does here. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is introduced, in true Luhrmann style, with fireworks exploding behind him. It is a laugh-out-loud moment of spectacle. But the more we know him, the more we can see little twitches of weirdness; his affectations, the “old sport,” are just the visible tip of a very big iceberg of insecurity and mania, and DiCaprio gets to that kind of brilliantly.
In her New York magazine article that I’ve seen described as a take-down of the book, Kathryn Schulz lists as one of the book’s faults its lack of an emotional interior to its characters. (I can’t remember exactly how I felt about this when I read the book, but I do remember feeling like I could never really picture what Gatsby looked like or what kind of guy he was.) DiCaprio’s performance helps to fill in that interior, give it shadow and, well, darker shadow. (Side note: if you enjoy the lit-nerd brush fires created all over the place by this movie, then I heartily recommend seeking out Schulz’s piece.)
Performances — performances as well as some of the most opulent, glitter-soaked staging ever — are what give this movie its zany life. Mulligan gives us, probably, the best possible Daisy you can get while still bearing some resemblance to the character in the book. Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan Baker is fun — not particularly necessary but fun to have around. Maguire gives Carraway a sliver of character — he’s mostly just a narrator from the sidelines, but he does occasionally get to have crumbs of a personality. And then there’s Edgerton, who is best known for either playing young Uncle Owen in the prequel Star Wars trilogy or the teacher turned mixed martial arts fighter in Warrior. He brings a good mix to Tom — frustration, desperation, pomposity, believable violence. He makes Tom a guy who is, sure, a mess but whom class has put in control.
This cast has the delightful ability to take some of that stagy, overheated Fitzgerald dialogue and make it feel, if not believable as words a person might actually speak, then believable as words that the people in this universe might speak. Luhrmann constructs a world made of exaggerated riffs on 1920s clothes, remixes of 2010s pop and hip-hop, and movie-musical color and choreography (which is the only way I can think of to describe, for example, the way the servants pull out chairs in unison). Blown up so large, The Great Gatsby the movie sparkles like, well, like a diamond as big as the Ritz but it also makes its flaws (the movie’s as well as the book’s) skyscraper-sized and gem-covered. This movie isn’t perfect, but it is a good time. Luhrmann’s crazy literary adaptations (see also 1996’s Romeo + Juliet) are why movies still deserve a big screen; if he keeps making them, I’ll happily keep going. B
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. Directed by Baz Luhrmann with a screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (from the novel by Fitzgerald), The Great Gatsby is two hours and 23 minutes long and distributed by Warner Bros.