The 365th film I have seen in theaters…
Was it TRULY…
Yes, Yes it was.
Plot and Style
If you do not know the plot, there is a serious deficiency in your education. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is possibly the greatest novel ever written by an American, and one of the the top 10 novels of the 20th century- certainly my favorite novel. This causes me to bring a lot of baggage into the theater. I want something that is true to the story of Gatsby while also capturing as much of the essence of the tale as is possible. This is a notoriously difficult thing to do.
In the 70’s, writer Robert Towne was offered a mountain of cash to write the screenplay for Gatsby. Now, Towne was no slouch. This man wrote my favorite film of all time, and was script doctor on some of the greatest movies ever made. He is offered the great american novel and he says “No”. He felt that any attempt to rewrite the book was doomed to failure as it is nearly impossible to bring the nuance of the book to the screen. The eventual 1970’s film was an admirable attempt, but ultimately it felt a bit flat. It was extremely devoted to the novel and did not deviate even slightly from the story Fitzgerald wrote, at the expense of the film.
Now it is 2013 and Baz Luhrman, possibly the most visionary director working today, takes on the challenge. He knows how to bring the excitement of the past forward for modern viewers, he did so in Moulin Rouge. Instead of the magic of Belle Époque Paris, he delivers the Jazz age using modern music. I can understand the problems some people have with this approach, but I was expecting it- knowing the Director. The details are slightly different from the novel, but all the meat of the story is there. The narrative device of Nick Carraway is used here to far superior results of any of the previous adaptations. Those walking into this movie, and only seeing “Exciting parties” and all “Flash” are missing the point.
This story starts at some point after the summer of 1922. Nick Carraway is in a sanitarium, trying to heal from Alcoholism and Depression. He is there as a result of the Summer of ’22. Right off the bat, the movie shows us that this is not glorifying the party, but showing that it was ultimately destructive. That is a key observation of the novel, written before the crash, of the lunacy of the roaring 20’s and where they were headed. The film captures that. As Nick Carraway gets sucked into the lifestyle of the West Egg parties, we are taken along with him. Gatsby is introduced, and the tale plays out.
The music was excellent. Besides the Hip Hop elements of the party scenes, there was some really great scoring done in this movie. Old songs were interspersed throughout, and the mood was always just right.
Leonardo DiCaprio nails this one. He makes every “old sport” seem effortless- no small feat to modern ears. Riding on decades of history as the Hollywood “Golden Boy”, he seamlessly blends into the skin of Gatsby. Hell, this is how half of America probably thinks of him anyway. Rich, Fabulous, and Fun. This also brought up an interesting parallel with the career of Robert Redford- the Golden Boy of the 60’s and 70’s. Excellent casting.
I was not sure if Tobey Maguire was the best choice for Carraway, but he actually might have been the best cast in the film. The whole story is seen through the filter of Nick, and Tobey manages to bring out the naivete of the character, and his eventual corruption. Giving Nick more of a story, following the events of ’22, was a masterstroke.
Carey Mulligan was an outstanding Daisy Buchanan. Although a wonderful actress, one of the glaring flaws in the 70’s version was the casting of Mia Farrow as Daisy. Mulligan plays her as less of an airhead, and really gets to the meat of this woman’s dilemma. Farrow’s Daisy came off as a weak willed fool, Mulligan brings a little more to the part.
Joel Edgerton, a man who first popped onto my radar in 2002 as Uncle Owen in Attack of the Clones, has had a marvelous career since. He really sells the physicality of Tom Buchanan. I believe this man could be a “brute”. His scenes with Wilson and Myrtle are also exceptional.
Elizabeth Debicki plays Jordan Baker. I feel that her character was the most neutered in this adaptation. All of the major beats of her character were covered, but her romance with Nick was definitely played down.
The remainder of the cast were all fine- particularly the minor roles of the Gatsby houseguests and partiers.
The Final Word
This was a great movie. It could have very easily gone horribly wrong, but it never did. I strongly disagree with the reviewers bashing this as fluff. It captured the spirit of the novel, and the ultimate story of the 1920’s in a far superior fashion than any of its predeccessors. I do not know how well this will translate 40 years from now. It’s modern stylings may seem horribly out of date, but that’s kinda the point. It was never real, all bullshit. The 1920’s were this flash in the pan wild party that fooled the entire world into thinking they were set for life. The end of that party brought decades of despair. We are in the middle of a period like the depression, following the party of the 1990’s. All the party was an illusion, and behind the curtain was…nothing. Just like Gatsby. In the end there was nothing. The house was ransacked by Wolfsheim, no one came to his funeral and he was forgotten. He was never real.