Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor. (Synopsis from IMDb)
Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald is most remembered for the 180 page novel The Great Gatsby. This slender novel has become an over hyped piece of literature that accumulated some heavy cultural significance. In the 88 years since publication, Gatsby has become a High School literature class staple and a permanent piece of pop culture. However, this story about the hedonistic Jazz Age has become grossly romanticized. This story about unrequited love and the illusion of wealth does not live up to its monumental reputation. The book is well-written, but it is also remarkably thin and is not Fitzgerald’s greatest work. Gatsby was last adapted for the big screen in 1974. If you are familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, or Australia, then the over the top epic melodrama of Gatsby should be unsurprising.
This adaptation of Fitzgerald’s vaunted novel opens with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) writing his memoir in an Asylum. Through this unnecessary framing device, the movie shows how Carraway is whisked into the alluring world of the nouveau rich. Soon obsession, madness, and tragedy overcome the superficial lives of the main characters. This is Luhrmann’s first foray into portraying an American story in an American setting. The glorious excess of 1920s New York is brought to life via the wonders of CGI and the cityscape is a little too stylized to be believable. Gatsby and Carraway go careening around New York in a fast moving roadster to the lovely sounds of modern Hip Hop superimposed over ragtime. Luhrmann has created a cartoonish America that no individual has ever visited.
I wished Luhrmann had taken a more subtle approach. Instead, he made a film that celebrates everything the novel derides. It is loud, flashy, expensive, and shallow. All the party scenes progress in a whirl of booze and lust. Everything feels slightly over directed, none of scenes flow together smoothly. Each scene is perfectly orchestrated, but a couple scenes feel forced. However, Luhrmann’s respect for the novel is quite evident. A lot of the dialogue is lifted directly from the novel and the miniscule details are brilliantly given life. But the over-the-top cinematography and soundtrack overpowers the narrative at several crucial points. I always enjoy Luhrmann’s movies, but his lavish theatrics are not appropriate for every narrative. Subtlety is underrated and underused.
Narrative wise, everything in the movie is passed via a strong set of rose colored romantic glasses, which is partly true to the novel. Gatsby is greatly romanticized in Nick’s imagination and Gatsby is in love with an overly idealized version of Daisy. At the heart of the narrative is the question: is the tale of Daisy and Gatsby a love story? Fitzgerald was not quite sure if he wrote a tragedy or a romance, but Luhrmann, DiCaprio and Mulligan try their best to make a doomed love affair seem romantic. So the movie is chocked full of melodramatic sighing, stolen looks, and romance tinged reminiscences.
Mulligan is perfect for Daisy Buchanan; she has the flirtatious looks and naïve worldliness down pat. In the book, Gatsby puts Daisy up on an impossibly high and idealized pedestal. The film almost does the same thing by making her a tad too likeable. Daisy is infatuated with money and never had any intention of leaving her husband, Tom Buchanan. Gatsby never looks beyond her charming mask to see the fickle, sardonic, amoral, and shallow personality beneath. While Daisy is capable of affection, she is not able to sustain any feelings of loyalty or caring. To her, Gatsby’s affection was merely a pleasant distraction. Her indifference to Gatsby’s feelings provide the emotional punch at the climax of the story. In the film, Daisy is too charming and genuinely receptive to Gatsby’s romantic advances. Which works for this particular adaptation but is not quite true to the novel.
DiCaprio’s portrayal of Gatsby is the highlight of the film. He manages to create the illusion of sophistication and money through the simplest effects of all: voice and body language. On paper, Gatsby is a mysterious character who is almost more a projection of Carraway’s imagination than an actual person. Since the characterization of Gatsby is so thin in the book, he is almost unplayable. But DiCaprio manages to keep Gatsby from coming across as fully one dimensional. He makes the lonely millionaire seem authentically real. All Gatsby desires is Daisy’s love and approval. Everything he accomplished was done with the sole intention of amassing enough wealth to tempt Daisy away from her Buchanan. As such DiCaprio adds an extra layer of nervous emotion to Gatsby to help flesh him out. He manages to be smarmy, mysterious, and open at the same time. He is the perfect foil for Mulligan’s flighty Daisy.
Maguire does a creditable job as Nick Carraway. In the book, Nick is meant to be the more grounded foil to Gatsby. Gatsby is loyal and basically good-hearted; Buchanan is a cold-hearted aristocratic bully; and Carraway is sober and reflective. On one hand, Nick is deeply attracted to the hedonistic and fast-paced New York party lifestyle. And on the other, he finds the entire lifestyle shallow and unfulfilling. This conflict is depicted via his relationship with Jordan Baker. Nick is attracted to her sophistication and vivacity but is disgusted with her casual dishonesty and lack of consideration. However, this conflict is never fully realized on screen because Luhrmann decided to focus on the “love story” between Gatsby and Daisy. Overall, this is a decent adaptation and I definitely enjoyed certain elements. I just wish it was less romanticized.