Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby: My take on the movie based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic starring Leonardo DiCaprio

THE GREAT GATSBY

There have been four movie versions of the book; the most well known being the 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The difference between that iteration and Baz Luhrmann’s movie is night and day. Where that attempt to film F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American classic suffered from being too slow and stuffy; this year’s Gatsby is nothing if not fast paced and dazzling.  Luhrmann’s camera dances, glides, swoops, twists and sharply turns but seldom sits still long enough for us to simply see; the over-the-top, outrageous and ‘bazzling’ elements in Luhrmann’s repertoire - those stunning sets and costumes - have the power to buckle our knees and sweep us right off our feet if only Luhrman would allow us to linger, to stay just a little bit longer.  That’s probably my one real complaint about the film; even at two and a half hours the story speeds by so fast, almost too fast to fully feel, absorb and appreciate.

And, contrary to criticism, there is plenty to feel, absorb and appreciate.

Fast. While Luhrmann gives this high octane version its’ thoroughly modern feel with his very active camera; JayZ succeeds with an equally energetic score to create a seamless fusion of pop, hip hop and Gershwin that feels as fresh and thrilling as jazz must have felt at the time - Luhrmann’s intent - music alive with the thrill of breaking all the rules, defiant of taboos. I'm not usually a fan of hip hop but Luhrmann, whose penchant for putting contemporary music in his soundtracks is well known, might have struck a gold chord here; the score may well be the way to the hearts of the masses of young people Luhrmann would love to lure into seeing the film and yes, reading the book. The director was on Colbert last night - as was Carey Mulligan (Daisy) in a very funny ‘didn’t read the book’ skit - and it’s clearly important to Luhrmann that we get it. He was understandably proud that interest in the film generated more sales of The Great Gatsby novel in one recent week than F. Scott Fitzgerald had seen in his lifetime, when this now great American novel was largely ignored at the end of Fitzgerald's days. He was also visibly moved to recount a conversation with Fitzgerald’s grand-daughter; the gist being that he got it right. A little self-serving, agreed.

MLH and I saw the first showing of The Great Gatsby at an L.A. theater last night; some of the mostly twenty-something audience donned Gatsby-themed gear;  a few young women wore flappers’ headbands, one of their boyfriends sported slicked back hair and too-tight sport jacket. When Leo made his entrance - perhaps one of the most audacious and delightful movie entrances ever - to the accompaniment of fireworks and Gershwin - the crowd laughed, cheered and clapped with delight. DiCaprio turned out to be as grand as his entrance; his desperation to be the GREAT Gatsby was in his eyes, and almost palpable in that deep crevice between them. The accent and ‘old sport’ affectations, far from being over the top, were delivered in just the way a self-made man would; one can almost see his James Gatz practicing his ‘old sport’ in his shaving mirror at precisely 5pm just as F. Scott Fitzgerald had Jay write in his daily schedule “Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it  5.00-6.00.”

MLH and I both felt Daisy - lovely, spoilt, cowardly - was perfection as played by Carey Mulligan but in the spirit of full disclosure MLH worked with Ms. Mulligan on Drive where she had very little to do but stare and look love struck - ‘she does that so well’ MLH said. While we waited for and got Daisy’s “I hope she’ll be a beautiful little fool” line, Luhrmann skipped the famous reference to Daisy’s voice being ‘full of money,’  an impossible definition to live up to; any effort sure to sound as artificial as Mia Farrow’s turn in that 1974 failed effort.

Joel Edgerton was fine as Tom; if not quite the physically hulking and barely restrained bully I pictured and who looks more like Tom Hardy to my mind. But Edgerton did channel the dark undercurrent of cruelty of a man who charms one moment but the next, spurred by a drink, will just as likely give you the back of his hand.

The big surprise for me was Tobey Maguire as Nick. I haven’t been a fan; Maguire’s clueless Joe routine has only annoyed me up to now but I found his na├»vete as Nick endearing and authentic. In a change from the novel, Luhrmann has Carroway in a sanatorium to get treatment for his alchoholism (‘everyone drank back then’ he tells his shrink); with encouragement from this doctor, Nick begins to write Gatsby’s story.

And like the novel, the vision of Gatsby that Luhrmann gives us, is Nick’s vision, a vision filtered by friendship and affection. Nick, at once flattered and surprised that the great Gatsby takes him into his confidence, is ever-present in the love story of Jay and Daisy, a willing accomplice to their joyous days. He may feel awkward and uncomfortable acting the beard in the company of Daisy’s brutish husband, Tom, but in the end Nick has Jay’s back. In today’s parlance, the Jay and Nick are bro’s and it’s a fine bromance, indeed. .

Luhrmann has likened the lives of Daisy and Tom to those of celebrity couple Liz and Dick, an oddly outdated reference for such a contemporary piece of work, but what he really means is that Daisy and Tom lead indulged celebrity lives like Katie and Tom, Angelina and Brad, Stacy and George, celebrities whose lives are lived in the glare of the spotlight and ever-present papparazzi.  The world hangs on their every word, retweeting their blurbs, inflating their importance and their worth. Careless and entitled, the Buchanan’s of the world take what they can and then move on, leaving a slew of servants and hired help to clean up after them and leaving Gatsby, were he alive, a step away from being reduced to a love-sick stalker charged with a restraining order at the very least.


The Great Gatsby is a poignant story about undying love, following your heart as far as you can go, about striving for the American dream, about trying and failing and trying again. I remember liking but not loving the book back when I was young and it was required reading. I found the story’s end too disappointing, Gatsby too tragic a figure and Daisy simply indecipherable. How could she stay with that belligerent racist bully? The tawdriness of his affair with Myrtle; the ugliness of the accident; none of it added up to the pretty romantic picture I craved.

When I reread the book recently it all made sense; my cynical adult self knew instantly (even if I hadn’t known) that Daisy and Gatsby would never make it; their failure was as inevitable as death and taxes.  I closed the book and wept with the hopelessness of it all.  Seeing the movie, watching DiCaprio reach out for that green light that blinks barely out of reach, his dream dying, I was glad Gatsby was spared the knowledge that his flickering hope would die out completely.

No tears but a solid night at the movies.

For more Great Gatsby posts visit my Gonzo for Gatsby page.

Read my take on the 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

More Reviews of Movies Based on Books

11 comments:

  1. Sim,

    This is an eloquent, glowing review of the movie... yes, you've picked out the positives. I'm glad you're thrilled about it. Good to read some alternative views from many other negative criticisms. The book is one of my all time favorites, and I trust the movie will turn some back to it or read it for the first time. Thanks for this wonderful post!

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    1. Thrilled is overstating it due to those camera moves but pleased, yes! Thanks Arti; I enjoyed your review as well.

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  2. I knew you'd have seen it already. So happy to see the review. My husband and I agreed that this is one we need to see in the theater. We're going next weekend.

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    1. It was great seeing it with him ... he had NOT read the book but he really enjoyed the film.

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  3. We have to wait til the end of the month before it starts in Australia. I'm really keen to see this one. I'm not quite sure why. I've read the book a few years ago, and didn't really like it. I just love the vibe of the trailer.

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    1. Well if nothing else there's all that local talent you might want to see - the movies taken a lot of heat but I think if you keep an open mind you'll enjoy it.

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    2. I saw Gatsby a few days ago- and loved it! I saw 2D because I don't like the 3D at my small town theatre, it's never any good. I loved the feel and the look- surely the costumes will win an Oscar? They deserve to. I'd like to see it again, maybe even in 3D.

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    3. I'm so glad! I think your own Catherine Martin could be nominated for both costume and production design. What did you think of the transformation of St. Patrick's Seminary? http://chapter1-take1.blogspot.com/2013/05/great-gatsby-b-roll-this-is-one-big-fat.html

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    4. It was not recognisable! I loved the setting. I think I'd either forgotten, or perhaps never known that it was filmed in Australia. I really enjoyed your setting post.

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  4. Hi Sim,
    I'm typing this with my eyes closed: I don't want to read any reviews until I see it. It just came out in London today, I'm seeing it later (writing my screenplay first). I can't get over how our lives are a kind of mirror/reverse! I'd love to talk with you more about that - email me if you'd like (jill@haybooks.com)

    Hope it's sunny in California! I'm setting my novel/film there, so I can have an excuse to live there for a while. Build it, they will come, etc.

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    1. Jill you know it's always sunny in SoCal:) I love that you said you were typing with your eyes closed; I did much the same thing because I didn't want their reviews to spoil my first viewing.
      It is by no means perfect but I thought there was much more to say on the plus side than the minus.
      I'll pop you an email; jealous of your London life.

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