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


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