Last week the box office partied like it was 1925 with the release of the Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated adaptation of that high-school English class classic: The Great Gatsby. The masses flocked to the cinema to get a glimpse of America’s favorite novel about the American dream—hint, it’s actually not about the American dream—remastered with hip song mash-ups, glittering CG backdrops, and perhaps one of the best performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as the charismatic, Jay Gatsby.
Unfortunately the critics seem to be snubbing the film, and with a dismal score of 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film stands in some sort of limbo: it seems you either hate it and think it’s a travesty to the memory of F. Scott, or you don’t and seek to defend it till the bitter-end. So what does this English major think of the film? Well – I can only say this much: You really can’t relive the past, and if you’re going to walk into this film, you got to let go of your expectations of the novel in order to give Luhrmann’s vision a chance.
I must preface this article by saying that The Great Gatsby is a novel that is quite important to my modernist-literature-loving-little-heart. If you have yet to read it, please, go and do so, and meditate on the wonderful car-wreck that is horrible people doing horrible things to each other, and the fact that maybe out of all that ilk there can be one man left with the ability to earnestly hope and wonder. The Great Gatsby isn’t a celebration of the “American dream”, in fact it’s more of a glance into the American nightmare and how brutally human aspirations can fall. There’s no romantic hero here to sweep up a Southern belle trapped in an abusive relationship, that’s for sure.
But I digress; no matter what kind of expectations or training you may have in regards to Gatsby you need to give the movie the benefit of the doubt the minute you walk into the theater. From the 1970s Robert Redford version to even Luhrmann’s attempt at making a cinematic masterpiece, the fact remains that this isn’t Fitzgerald. So no, can’t say it’s a bad movie because it didn’t follow the book exactly, neither can you forgive it, completely, just because it was an interpretation of another work.
Instead, let’s do our best to take a deep breath in and then let’s look at what Luhrmann gave us and come to some consensus about the film overall.
Okay, so, while Luhrmann might not be a household name, but it certainly brings to mind images of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. So we know what Luhrmann is good at: the razzle-dazzle, lavish CGI sets that are spectacles in of themselves. Honestly, you either love it, or you hate it, but the fact remains that the over-the-top is his calling card. And he spares none of that for Gatsby as the audience is plunged through a mix of luscious CGI interspersed with expansive sets that depict the gritty reality of 1920s New York (Hint: It sucked if you weren’t rich).
Honestly it’s an interesting balance; for instance New York is a constructed wonderland in stark contrast to the Valley of the Ashes with its bleak (But terribly accurate) depiction of the urban poor. So that’s a point that I think Luhrmann had on-mark, making the rich overly decadent in contrast to those moments when decadence was pushed aside for stark reality.
In addition to the uniquely “Luhrmann” feeling of the sets, the movie’s soundtrack is evident of another one of Luhrmannn’s calling cards. Jazz age hits—which were important to Gatsby for providing subtle irony via song titles and lyrics—were mixed with something more contemporary instead. Which isn’t perhaps a bad thing, after all, enough people seem to think that Luhrmann and Jay-Z’s soundtrack with its remix of contemporary songs are actually our version of the Jazz Age, of the decadent sounds of the 2000s before our own Great Recession.
And you know, I can give them that; I mean there are some real gems for the soundtrack that fit. In fact, the soundtrack does sound and read like a freshman-year “Create a contemporary soundtrack for this book” prompt, so, I think I’m going to have to give kudos to the soundtrack for its take at snuffing at tradition and instead constructing a track that was a nod to our own problems.
So far so good, no?
Besides Luhrmann’s tendency to go for style over substance, he certainly did not go terribly wrong with his cast. Tobey Maguire as a Nick Carroway recounting his summer tragedy at a sanatorium was a pretty good way to keep the novel’s dialogue. And Tobey Maguire might have made for a funny choice for Spiderman but he does a pretty good adaptation of Nick, one who perhaps, is more caring than the book’s detached unreliable narrator. Also Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby was a solid choice, who brought a special side to the character, making him a man beyond the mystery—seriously his delivery and expressions reminded the audience that Gatsby is a Midwestern hick playing at old money pedigree.
Also a surprise star performance? Has to be Joel Edgerton and his role of Tom Buchanan. The head of the Buchanan household and its reckless disregard for other people is just brilliantly performed by Edgerton—if anything you have more than just a stock villain over here. It’s worth it to watch the film even if just to watch Edgerton wreck havoc on this overly romanticized doomed romance.
If anything, my only major complaint that kind of made the movie unbearable for me has to be with Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan. Gone is the bored socialite willing to make a mess and walk away from the destruction and hide away into her vast expanses of money… Mulligan plays Daisy a bit more airy, a bit more ephemeral, a bit more sympathetic. It takes away a lot of her character when she is helpless; what happened to the Daisy that knew when the game was too much and couldn’t play it anymore? Who crushed Gatsby herself?
Anyroad, my dislike for the new sympathetic Daisy aside… As far as pacing and script… Well, Lurhmann managed to take most of the script from the book, so that’s one victory for modernism, and for the argument that an adaptation can take the original text and incorporate it into the resulting film. Pacing was blessedly straightforward without Nick Carroway’s usual unreliable time-skips; so Luhrmann successfully tamed Fitzgerald’s vague time frame and compiled it instead into a pretty easy to follow movement. Not much to complain about here, since his devotion to following the book is quite evident; heck even the hip-hop-remixes and Jazz Age parallels are pretty true to the origins of both musical movements.
So even the Gatsby purist can’t complain too much after Fitzgerald’s novel received the Lurhmann treatment.
So… Just as a reminder: an adaptation is an interpretation, and I think Luhrmann has all he needs to make a solid and convincing version of Gatsby as according to his vision of the razzle-dazzle glitz of the Jazz Age. However, while Luhrmann certainly has several components that are good, in the long run, for Gatsby, does this make the film overall a good film?
Honestly. It is all a matter of opinion. Because here’s the thing; I can recognize the good points of the film, but when I watched it? I didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps I was holding onto the novel too much in my heart, because I would have moments where I chuckled to myself thinking “Oh that’s brilliant, Luhrmann” but still I left the theater feeling lukewarm. I mean, it has its moments, its really good moments. Although those moments, for me, were concentrated towards the second half of the film and especially at the end where Lurhmann toned down on the CGI glory to instead focus on the destruction of his motley cast.
But overall it was a Luhrmann film. And honestly you either like him or you hate him, and for Gatsby I couldn’t enjoy it, not for interpreting the film in his own way, no, but because it did fall into that old Luhrmann theme of style over substance. There’s the CG, the soundtrack which were enjoyable and unique. But then there’s the characters that have their moments but otherwise fell to the wayside—because as pretty as a film is it just won’t hold over if there’s nothing there with the characters. Yes I praised them for their stunning moments, but it was moments of brilliance, my friends, rather than a cohesive whole.
So that’s my impression of Luhrmann’s Gatsby. It was a film that had the makings of an amazing film, but for now it stands as a “decent” interpretation, for me at least. It’s not something to sit down and watch for hours on end, and I think the once is enough to experience the Luhrmann version. Unless, of course, you’re a big Luhrmann fan; then perhaps you can forgive his flake out on consistently keeping the characters as compelling figures as they hurtle through their moral mess.
And, in light of seeing a few reviews mention that this version of Gatsby is “more relevant” than the original… I can only just shake my head. It’s an interpretation, and it’s good to watch for its own sake, but if you did happen to love the Luhrmann version, please, please, please go out and read the book, Old Sport.
You won’t regret it.
– Interesting take on an American classic
– The soundtrack is pretty gorgeous and unique; as well as a poignant parallel between the Jazz Age and hip-hop
– The Luhrmann route of style over substance strikes again with characters that have moments of brilliance but a long portion of boredom
– If you can’t let go of your past experiences of reading The Great Gatsby, then this might not be the film for you