To watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is to witness the intentions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original novel finally making themselves known. In the process of adapting the novel, Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce have not only made the best cinematic version of the story, they have actually made something better than the story itself; although the basic plot has been left virtually untouched, the weight of Fitzgerald’s literariness has at last been lifted, and we, the audience, can now see the emotions and thematic subtexts that had previously been kept hidden. This observation will undoubtedly not ring true to literary purists, who remain stubbornly steadfast in their belief that an author is infallible. I earned my Creative Writing degree surrounded by people like that, and I often wondered why they bothered going to the movies at all.
Of the three previous cinematic adaptations, the two that survived failed to transcend Fitzgerald’s vision. Elliott Nugent’s mostly forgotten 1949 film, in which Alan Ladd starred as the title character, removed all undercurrents of class, identity, and the hollow pursuit of wealth and turned the story into an overwrought romantic tragedy. Jack Clayton’s much more well known 1974 film, starring Robert Redford, was a mechanical, soulless exercise – painstakingly faithful to the novel’s sequence of events, but almost entirely devoid of personality. Now we have Luhrmann’s film, and while it may follow the novel closely, the more important thing is that it has had life injected into it. There’s an energy that has never been seen before, a vibrancy, a sense that we’re actually being told a story.
Admittedly, Luhrmann’s flair for theatrics played no small role in making this possible. The film is not a fantasy, but it’s also not a straightforward, grounded period picture. It’s of a heightened reality; the performances are intentionally exaggerated, as are the grandiose sets, many of which are augmented by special effects, especially during the party sequences. There’s also an anachronistic soundtrack, the melodramatic score by Craig Armstrong intertwined with a fusion of contemporary jazz and hip hop songs, the latter supervised by Jay-Z. And then, of course, there’s the film’s presentation in 3D. It’s every bit as alarming as it sounds, and if you happen to believe that it serves no narrative purpose, I couldn’t agree with you more. At the same time, I can understand the decision to release it that way, given Luhrmann’s penchant for visual flights of fancy.
But the film’s style is only part of the reason why it works so well. Luhrmann and Pearce seem to know the characters better than even Fitzgerald knew them; they’re developed into living, breathing people we’re actually made to care about. Without question, the best example is Nick Carraway, who up until now has never come off as anything apart from a passive observer with no significant part to play, apart from being the narrator. Portrayed in this new film by Tobey Maguire, he has been given a much greater sense of purpose, and in turn successfully conveys the moral that greatness should never come at the expense of one’s true self. In a narrative move unique to this adaptation, Nick tells the story as a series of extended flashback sequences from within a sanitarium, where he’s being treated for alcoholism, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. He begins by talking to his doctor, and is then encouraged to write it all down. The more he types, the more we suspect that Carraway is in fact a fictionalized version of Fitzgerald.
Jay Gatsby, the mysterious lovestruck millionaire, is now played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who was wise to adopt a mannered, ivy-league style of speaking. Taking the reins from both Betty Field and Mia Farrow as Nick’s second cousin and Gatsby’s old flame, Daisy Buchanan, is Carey Mulligan, and true to how she was described in the novel, her voice does indeed sound like money. Daisy’s white supremacist hulk of a husband, Tom, is played by Joel Edgerton, who’s not only physically right for the role but also knows how and when to alternate between subtlety and directness. Alas, not even this new film knows what to do with Daisy’s friend and Nick’s casual love interest, golfer Jordan Baker, here played by Elizabeth Debicki. I cannot blame Luhrmann for retaining this blatantly superfluous character for the sake of literary faithfulness, but I can blame him for not taking creative license during her cinematic development phase.
Isla Fisher has a small but significant role as Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, as does Jason Clarke as Myrtle’s desperate, financially struggling husband George, an auto mechanic perpetually being watched over by a gigantic pair of eyes painted onto a dilapidated optometrist’s billboard. There’s much to admire about this new version of The Great Gatsby, even though every fiber of my being tells me it’s unlikely to be appreciated by any potential audience; the Fitzgerald enthusiasts will think it blasphemous, even though nothing has been sacrificed, while moviegoers will misinterpret Luhrmann’s artistic sensibilities as style over substance, the latter nevertheless there to be seen. Unlike the title character, a misguided soul who believed he needed to be something he wasn’t, the tragedy of this film is that it’s absolutely authentic.
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Warner Bros. Pictures