It’s adaptation time and it’s a classic. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s scholastically obligatory opus, The Great Gatsby (1925), is brought to the initially silver screen by Baz Luhrmann, aptly titled The Great Gatsby (2013). I was not that big on the book. We’d carved it up into eyes, green lights, and historical context leaving the whole a disjointed bloody mess. There was so much, I didn’t even see the code, just blonde, brunette, red-head. A movie can bring out those sorts of symbols more easily because you aren’t able to pause long enough to lose the thread of events. In school, they didn’t let me read the way I watch a movie. I see it all, partially digest it, and move on without subtitles for every profound or profound-sounding moment. Luhrmann is a close reader and wants you to know it. But it doesn’t harp on it like an English teacher. More like a junior English Lit major, so that’s okay.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has had a bit of a breakdown and has sought out professional help. The doctor (Jack Thompson) suggests that Nick write it all out. Flashback to 1922 when the business is booming, the beats are jumpin’ and the ladies get high. Oh, Tom Buchannan’s (Joel Edgerton) rich and Daisy’s (Carey Mulligan) good lookin’. So hush, little Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), don’t you cry. Nick is the watcher of the quotation above and very rarely does he play ball. He’s moved to New York to work in the bond market, of which he knows nothing, to make his way in the world. Next door, Jay Gatsby throws extravagant parties and Nick gets an invitation. Thus begins their close friendship born of Gatsby’s desire to have Nick invite his cousin Daisy over to tea. They have a history, you see. I never really recovered from the Summertime thing. You know the story.
Being some ten years or more separated from reading the book, and not particularly bettered by the experience, I have no sacred cows lined up for Hollywood slaughter. The release has been hounded by moaning about the music or the casting or the stylization or the casting again or whatever else one might criticize. These are all poorly founded. If anything, I wanted more style, more spectacle, more BOOM and swish (cinematography by Simon Duggan). For being in 3D, this is positively restrained and not at all consistent with my expectation set by the trailer. There are only a few moments of theatrical choreography (all early on) and I feel it might have been served better with a consistent stylistic tone. It’s always glossy and pretty, but it isn’t always perfectly timed or heart-stoppingly glamorous. It lived in between the worlds of Australia (2008) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) and I suspect this will be quite pleasing to most who either fear the ruination of a classic or the sloggery of symbolism.
What it did quite well–and I suspect that if I were in a different mood I would call it quite awful–was to draw the symbolism and ambiguity out and shove it down your throat. Much of the story, left off the page in the book, is brought out screaming. “God sees everything!” sounds like it was pulled from the Themes section of Cliff’s Notes. But as I say, they did it well and it is better fitted into Luhrmann and Craig Pearce‘s dialogue than you see in most adaptations.
Whenever I see a fantasy adaptation, I always get the feeling that the filmmakers loved it differently than I did somehow. They saw the images and plot but never saw the characters as living beings. Luhrmann and Pearce, with the help of a strong cast, goes very much the other way. They loved the words and they loved the characters and it translated damn well. Movies are considered the killers of literature, but The Great Gatsby is a shining beacon–white, not green–that shows the way to enhancing literature. A movie can highlight those symbols, which are so often visual cues, without saying a word and thereby perform the task better. I for one left the theater wanting to revisit the book, not to fact-check, but to read it through their eyes. [NB: Though they didn’t have to say a word, they frequently, frequently did. But I have forgiven them and so should you.]
They did, however, noticeably diverge from the book in a way that needled me quite sharply. They must have felt that the audience wouldn’t really understand some of the subtext if they didn’t reveal much of Gatsby’s back-story right around the middle of the film. The problem is that ambiguity and the aloofness of the Gatsby character is a heavy element of the book. Little of Gatsby’s conversation is detailed (as far as I can remember) while the film brings out Gatsby, his back story, and delineates his motivations in some detail. I liked about half of that. I like how they treated Gatsby as a human character rather than the MacGuffin to the story. It made the story more tragic in my mind since Gatsby was more than a mere curiosity to me. In the movie, Nick and Gatsby are friends, truly. The other half is treating your audience like they’re a bit dim and that I don’t like.
Another of Luhrmann’s elements of style is the incorporation of Shawn Carter‘s music into the film. Carter put “Jay-Z” in between his names, but I felt like he shouldn’t, so I won’t. The rap tunes were not a problem in the slightest, though the actual rapping was a slight problem. I couldn’t understand most of the words, except when “100 Benjamins” came on, so it was almost like a -thing. Most of the movie music consists of blending these tunes with jazzy instruments or music of the age–including “Rhapsody in Blue“, used to great effect despite coming out two years after the events of the film are fictionally taking place–and so adds only the relentless, doomy beats that underlines the events and makes slow motion sensible. I also noted Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” sighing in the background when it should have been brought right out front. We’re living through a renaissance for popular jazz/blues music and Luhrmann could have taken greater advantage of the opportunity.
I have strong opinions on music in film and I find that most directors don’t pay enough attention to it or don’t know how to choreograph a scene. Luhrmann should be on the absolute top of the list for directors because he uses music so consciously. That makes The Great Gatsby more of a disappointment in that context. For this point, lets consider “Rhapsody in Blue” and the bit from “Toccata and Fugue in D minor“, both fabulous pieces. “Rhapsody in Blue” is set to the first big party scene and plays out with fireworks against Nick and Gatsby’s first meeting. A lot of spectacle. And yet, somehow, he’s off the rhythm, and he uses a slow tempo (which probably accounted for him being off the rhythm). “Toccata and Fugue” is allowed to go on for about ten audible seconds. Wasted opportunity. That song could have either been tricked out, a la “Roxanne” from Moulin Rouge!, or played out to underline a moment like “Rhapsody in Blue” had been. This is a pick of the nit variety and probably doesn’t deserve two paragraphs, but my disappointment probably assuages some fears (and puts new fears in their place).
A few words on the cast. “It is terrific.” I made “It’s” into “It is” so that it was a few rather than a couple. DiCaprio is firmly entrenched in my Hall of Dependables and Carey Mulligan is standing in the vestibule. Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher, who I didn’t mention, play Mr. and Mrs. Wilson of the gas station, are high quality actors. Yes, Edgerton too. Debicki was a complete unknown to me until now. She is on my radar. Have I missed anyone? Oh yes, Maguire. There is something aesthetically displeasing to me about Maguire. His performance is great, but his boyish face always strikes me as slightly dumb and uninterested. Still, he plays the role well as the best semi-detached wing-man in literature. O, if Waterston were a younger man.
Go, enjoy it.