Director: Baz Luhrmann
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the most enduring 20th Century novels in the English language. First published in 1925, the tragedy lays bare the glamour and perils of pursuing the ever elusive American Dream. In the decades since, The Great Gatsby has become a staple in high school syllabi in America, alongside Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
|The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann|
Every year I teach The Great Gatsby to 11th and 12th graders. One of the first things I point out to my students is the novel’s relevance in today’s world. Despite its setting in the Jazz Age – the decade between the First World War and the Great Depression and arguably the most romantic time in all of American history – its depiction of the nouveau riche, the yawning gap between the have’s and the have not’s and a society on the brink of moral and economic collapse all rings true to observers of Modern China.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann is best known for putting out bold, stylized and extravagant spectacles, from Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! to the Broadway adaptation of La Boheme. Watching a Luhrmann film is like watching the Cirque du Soleil: an assault on the senses by eye-popping sets, shimmering costumes and a menagerie of musical numbers.
In The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann has done it again. He turns the volume button way up and drags the color saturation dial to the max. The result is a 3D extravaganza of overflowing champagne, anachronistic hip-hop music and all the art deco opulence imaginable. The film is every bit as decadent as the Jazz Age itself.
|Party scene after party scene in the spectacular adaptation|
Luhrmann by and large stays close to Fitzgerald’s original story, with the exception of the framing device he invented for better story-telling on the silver screen. The film opens with Nick Carraway, the narrator-in-chief who recounts his traumatic experience in New York City from a rehab facility. This allows the rise and fall of mysterious billionaire Jay Gatsby to unfold in the way it does in the novel. Fitzgerald fans will be pleased to see that all the literary symbolism that runs through his novel, such as the green light in East Egg, the clock on the mantlepiece and Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s giant eyeglasses, has been carefully preserved. And the three most important scenes – Nick’s first party at the Gatsby Mansion, the reunion between Gatsby and his love interest Daisy and the Plaza Hotel confrontation – are treated with care and dramatic tension.
Almost as twinkling as the Tiffany’s jewelry worn by Daisy are the all-star cast, many of whom deliver their career’s best. On that subject, we must start with Leonardo DiCaprio, who looks like a younger, less detached Robert Redford (who starred in the 1974 movie adaptation). DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby is at once determined and halting, earnest and evasive, invincible and vulnerable. It is the first time I actually notice DiCaprio as a serious actor rather than just another Hollywood leading man.
|"Champagne, old sport?"|
Tobey Maguire holds his own playing the wide-eyed Nick Carrway, the observer from “within and without” who takes it all in with equal intrigue and disgust. Australian actor Joel Edgerton also gives a compelling performance portraying the gruff, bigoted scion Tom Buchanan. The only disappointment is English actress Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. Looking like a younger version of Michelle Williams, Mulligan comes up short on both looks and gravitas. We can’t comprehend why a man like Gatsby would spend his entire life chasing a girl like Daisy. Perhaps Scarlett Johansson or Rooney Mara would have been a better casting choice. Worse, Mulligan plays Daisy as a feeble victim of a love triangle instead of a callous narcissist and a willful accomplice to her contemptible husband. It is where the movie misses the mark.
In the end, The Great Gatsby is a highly entertaining drama that falls short of the serious tragedy that perhaps it never aspires to be. It is more wowing than it is touching. Because of that, the movie is universally panned by movie critics in America. But such is the peril of working with literary classics like Great Expectations and Anna Karenina: everyone has a preconceived notion of what the movie adaptation should look like. I also wonder whether movie critics are knocking the movie or Fitzgerald’s novel itself. Indeed, revisionists have long questioned the “greatness” of The Great Gatsby and called it “flawed” and “overrated.” So whether you end up liking the movie – which I did – or hating it ultimately depends on whether you like the book itself.
|First edition published in 1925 by Scribner's|