It was always bound to cause a divide between film-goers and Fitzgerald puritans, but I’ll admit I was drawn Baz Luhrmann’s recreation of the Great Gatsby. I did go with slight trepidation, nervous about the flamboyant and often controversial director’s attempts to change a classic. However, I’ll argue until my death that Leonardo DiCaprio is our generation’s Marlon Brando, albeit a more boyish, eternally fresh-faced version, and who better to take on the enigmatic, self-made American dream of Gatsby? I’ll also insist that Baz had to be the director to recreate the decadence and almost garish flamboyance of the 1925 novel while breathing fresh life into a piece of fiction that has been over-analyzed, studied and revered.
I was initially disappointed to find it was a 3D film, an entirely unnecessary gimmick for films with real genuine actors, solid story lines, and well-written scripts. 3D should be reserved only for movies whose major draw is special effects.
Academics have suggested Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925) predicted the 1929 crash of Wall St, so it’s befitting that the film opens with our narrator, bonds salesman Nick Carraway, in a mental asylum where he’s being treated for depression, anxiety and alcoholism.
We begin with the first party scene at Gatsby’s house, which is exactly what you’d expect from Luhrmann, combining all the glitter and vertigo-inducing spinning cameras of Moulin Rouge with the kind of tongue-in-cheek offbeat comedy of Strictly Ballroom and Romeo and Juliet. Through the eyes of Tobey Maguire–playing Nick Carroway as the wide-eyed, naïve outsider- we’re given the keys to the kingdom as a larger than life cinematic experience unfolds before us, burdened by the pressure it faces from critics and audiences alike.
Visually the film was always going to be spectacular. Gatsby’s sprawling mansion is almost an exact replica of the Disneyland castle. It’s excessive and decadent, a reflection of its owner, the self-made speculator and bootlegger Gatsby. The costumes, a collaboration between Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin and designer Miuccia Prada, are phenomenal; if anything see this film for the long, lavish catwalk. The actors are elegantly dressed, the sets and Long Island landscapes are fabulously opulent, the colors are a Disney acid trip.
Luhrmann isn’t for everyone’s taste, but he doesn’t care what others think: he is unapologetic in his personal and professional tastes. Reunited with Leonardo–the child-star whose career got a significant boost from Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet–Baz knows the Hollywood A-lister is the tool with which to make this movie good. So he teases us mercilessly by not letting us see him. It’s a slow 20 minutes until DiCaprio appears onscreen. His character Gatsby is unveiled with the pomp and circumstance of a Fourth of July parade.
Carraway stumbles through one of Gatsby’s lavish parties, nervously clutching his handwritten invitation and searching for the illusive host, encountering a man in a white suit–whose face is carefully shielded from the camera–and questioning him about this Gatsby. He does not realize his is talking to the great man himself. We overhear party-goers whispering, “I hear he killed a man once.” DiCaprio raises a champagne glass, smiles that million dollar Gatsby-DiCaprio smile, fireworks erupting behind him, and says, “I’m sorry. I thought you knew old sport.”
The movie starts slowly, but that is expected with a literary book. For the most part Luhrmann remains loyal to the original prose, shortening some of the more labored dialogue known to critics. The first dinner scene at Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s is a great example of this. Speedily paced with theatrical props and special effects, the actors aren’t permitted to play it subtle. It does feel initially that they’re all hamming it up a bit.
DiCaprio’s accent is somewhat perplexing. It’s as if he were a native Californian trying to master an East Coast accent. Or he could be Robert Redford trying to sond like a refined New Yorker educated at Oxford. Probably it’s the latter. Nonetheless his ‘old sport’ is a bit labored and some of his longer monologues a bit sketchy, which again could be part of creating an entirely unreliable protagonist, a character who remains a mistery until the end.
Carey Mulligan is superb as southern belle Daisy; she conveys the sadness and emptiness behind the tormented character while also masking it with her signature frivolity. The remainder of the cast are little more than caricatures. Isla Fisher is over-the-top but not memorable as Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson. Her bad Noo-Yoik-ah accent and garish hair and make-up would be better suited for the stages of a community theater in her native Australia than a big budget film. Joel Edgerton (another Aussie) is also strangely cast as the hulking, brutish Tom Buchanan. His accent and polo player, cowboy physique almost suggest he’s in an entirely different film from the rest of the cast, a Western perhaps?
The final element is the soundtrack. It was another controversial move when Baz decided to replace jazz with Hip Hop, hiring Jay-Z ,musical director of Romeo and Juliet as well. So we have modern music juxtaposed with classic literature. Jay-Z says that jazz of the ‘20s, an explosion of African American street music, was what Hip Hop is today and that audiences need to feel that excitement of hearing something new to them instead of Jazz which they do not know nor appreciate. The soundtrack’s gem is Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful, which is reinterpreted several times throughout the film. It is both haunting and vocally breathtaking. There are scenes where the Hip Hop stands out for all the right reasons, namely when Gatsby and Carraway are speeding over a bridge into Manhattan in his brilliant yellow 1929 Duesenberg, and a convertible cruises past filled with dozens of bottles of Moet and Chandon champagne on ice and beautiful people dancing to Jay Z’s Izzo (H.O.V.A.). You can’t help but smile. That’s what Baz does for you.
Fans of the novel wondered whether the underlying tragedy of Gatsby would be told correctly, whether we would get a sense of the melancholy beneath the rubies and beautiful shirts and pink suits. That part of the novel remains intact.
DiCaprio with Howard Hughes intensity embodies this tortured soul, who is bordering on mental illness and obsession. The film captures the delusion that held Gatsby for five years. These delusions falls apart, yet he remains hopeful. This is portrayed convincingly so that you feel dread as we approach the end and that fateful final swimming pool scene. You long for the ending to be re-written, for the story to not end in the defeat of a character who has our sympathy. The film changes the ending slightly. It concludes with a lingering image of Gatsby standing at the end of his pier, looking out across the bay at the green light of hopes and dreams and not realizing it’s already behind him.
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