“It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” -Nick Carroway
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has seen many attempts at the big screen throughout the decades including an ambitious attempt in 1974 that was penned by Francis Ford Coppola and starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Sadly no cast, writers, or even most talented of directors have quite been able to crack THE “American Novel”. Hollywood’s latest attempt has brought the reputable Baz Luhrmann onto the scene with his signature visuals and always innovative use of pop music and musical score. Do we have a movie that finally captures Fitzgerald’s brilliance and sophistication or is this another movie to chuck into the “thanks for trying” bin?
By this point anyone who has made their way though high school English 101 knows the premise of Gatsby. We witness the entire story through stock broker Nick Carraway’s(Tobey Maguire) memory to discover how he came to know the illusive Jay Gatsby(Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby is a man filled with ambition, hope, and a flame that is inextinguishable. In short Gatsby is a man with a dream who will stop at nothing to see it through. After nearly an hour into the movie, we learn that what Gatsby truly desires more than anything is Carraway’s cousin Daisy Buchanan(Carey Mulligan) who is married to Tom Buchanan(Joel Edgerton),one of the richest men in New York, who also happens to be one of Nick’s former colleagues. It’s the story of love, greed, obsession, self-reinvention, and the cost of the American Dream that many of us are probably familiar with, and this movie does little to change what we already know about the plot.
This movie does, however, retell this story with the ambition that Gatsby himself carried around with its insatiably appetizing visuals, powerfully mesmerizing soundtrack, and momentous scope that seems bigger than even F. Scott himself could have expected. The movie goes from scene to scene filled with the brightest and most exciting visuals that throw enough eye candy at the screen to send any sane person into coma. Everything about how the setting is portrayed feels like a party, making even the dullest or most dramatic scenes seem new and exciting. It quickly becomes apparent that this celebration and glorification of the roaring twenties is less about the historical setting, but falls more deeply into the realm of nostalgic. It’s very clear that this movie isn’t trying for accuracy, but is actually aiming to give the audience the same understanding of the feelings Fitzgerald had wrapped around the era.
If the visuals wasn’t enough to capture this sensation, the soundtrack will do it double. This movie brings a truly creative angle on the way the music of the time is represented. The big band, jazz, and barbershop music of the twenties is replaced by the likes of Jay Z, Beyonce, will.i.am, and Florence and the Machine. I’m always the first to call out period movies on this type of mainstream pandering, but Baz Luhrmann’s new take on the music manages to work by bringing an energy and adrenaline to the music that was surely the same type of energy written about in the novel. This soundtrack/score is used brilliantly in a way that somehow makes the story seem even closer and more relevant to audiences today in a way that never could have been learned in a classroom. The biggest flaw in this technique is that at some point these songs aren’t going to be popular anymore and the meaning behind their use could fade making this retelling of The Great Gatsby a mere product of our contemporary era instead of modern classic this movie probably deserves to become.
Luhrman’s aesthetic lives up to Fitzgerald’s writing, but does it manage to capture the of the thematic tone along with all of the complexities of each of the characters? This is going to be left up to each viewer to decide, but for myself I believe that I came to understand and connect with the character of Jay Gatsby in a way that no other adaption has made possible thus far. I’ve quite honestly never like many of the characters in the the classic novel, and this movie did little to change my mind about many of them. I still found Nick to be an enabling prude, Daisy to be the weak and melodramatic queen of the indecisive, and Tom to be a selfish bigoted authoritarian money-grubber. The actors all(except for a bit of stumbling from Toby) executed their roles beautifully(I’ll even applaud Joel Edgarton for giving Tom some real humanity), but my problems with the story’s characters remained with one crucial exception.
The character that brought this movie down to earth and believable for me was Gatsby, and it’s all thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio’s stellar performance of a self-made man who dreams are too big for any one world to understand. DiCaprio brings a softer portrayal of the man who has done both great wonders and unspeakable deeds to fulfill his dream than any actor I’ve seen so far. Unlike other actors’ takes on the role, DiCaprio brings out that tragedy of the hollow life that Gatsby lives in pursuit of his dreams. When it was all said and done, I felt deep pity for the character that I had never discovered even in Fitzgerald’s own book. There are many ways to read the movie, but I believe that especially in this instance, Gatsby represents the ultimate success of the classic American Dream and how it fails on its promise of happiness. Gatsby’s reinvention of himself at a young age mixed with his endless pursuit of status and money to obtain love makes his lack of true human connection and deeply understood loneliness even harder to swallow.
For all of its impressive feats, I did have some minor gripes with some of the spotty CGI which was made obvious by the 3D(which was overall worth the extra price of admission). It was made most evident in the transitional scenes where the cars were driving back and forth through the city. These same transitions also became one of my least favorite parts of the movie in the final stretch of the film. The car driving was fine, but I found many of the editing choices e in these sections to just a bit too blurry, at times choppy, and maybe even a bit nauseating This is a very minor gripe that may not bother many, but did take me out of the world which I found otherwise to be very engaging.
Overall this rendition of The Great Gatsby succeeds in making this story about the wealthy of the roaring twenties seem relevant to our society that just may be even more focused on luxuries and surfaces than even Nick Carraway perceived of his time. The visually energetic sets and music mixed with the depth and complexity of the story brought life to a novel that the mainstream at large may have thought a thing of the past. While it may be what audiences needed, only time will tell if Baz Luhrmann reinvented Gatsby in a way that will stand the test of age.
The Great Gatsby is a tale that’s never really resonated with me as it has with others, but this retelling finally brings the best elements of the novel to surface in exciting new ways I didn’t expect. This story stands the test of time and keeps on giving even in the current era.
None of these characters have ever seemed all that dynamic, and each of the cast nail their character out of the park the best they can. The only real exception is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby who portrays shades of hope, tragedy, and the hollowness of the American Dream in a softer more human manner than even the original novel.
Baz Luhrmann takes some big risks with his use of music, and it pays off in spades. You add this to his electrifying visuals that only further highlight Fitsgerald’s love of the twenties, and you have a direction that makes this movie soar in new ways that further puts this story in modern context. Due to the reliance on popular music, it still seems very uncertain whether or not this movie will stand the test of time or fade into obscurity.
Overall Effectiveness of the Movie: 9.0
This film brings The Great Gatsby to a generation that has more or less forgotten exactly why it is considered THE American novel by re-framing Gatsby’s character and using pop music that younger audiences can better connect with.