Overall Rating: A
Friday night, I went to see the movie The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann. Previously, I had read the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. These two are totally different entities. Often, a film is lambasted for veering too much from the source material, which is and has always been an unfair treatment, especially when it is clear that the film simply has no interest in adapting a book, but instead is stealing a plot. The Great Gatsby (2013), if measured as an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s timeless work, which in my amateur opinion is the perfect novel, is a disgrace. It is an insult to the novel by undermining some of its key plot points and retooling its most well constructed characters. It is an insult to Scott Fitzgerald by tearing his touch from a story of his imagination, and even to the less educated viewer it refuses him any credit for the novel by attributing it to someone else. (At least they put his name on the poster.) Lastly, it is an insult to the audience by delivering with childish simplicity some of the wonderfully subtle and intuitive points that made the original story what it is; a timeless classic that no one will deny.
If even a small part of the standard by which we measure Luhrmann’s project is its relationship to the source, then it is a tragedy of a film. The talent and resources that went into it we simply put to waste. The 1976 version which catastrophically miscast Mia Farrow and Robert Redford (Sam Waterson was actually a very good Nick Carraway and the supporting cast was appropriate, but if you miss Gatsby then nothing else works) is the far superior picture. Its major downfall as a film may have actually been that it was too true to the novel to work on screen, an issue that the new one avoided emphatically.
Luckily for Baz Luhrmann as the rest of the 2013 The Great Gatsby bunch, many will be able to look past this, even more will be able to try and see it as an independent work, and even more are the scum of the earth and have never picked up Fitzgerald’s book. The reason that film is the greatest medium for storytelling there is, and why I defend it as simply the highest art form, is that there is so much more than plot. Only the plot is true to the novel (mostly), but every bit of the movie reflects the talents of those involved in making a great film. Yes, after lambasting it for its relationship to a great novel, I called The Great Gatsby a great film.
The first and foremost thing about a movie toward making it work for the audience is casting. In the whole, The Great Gatsby could have had a lot better casting, beginning with virtually the entire supporting cast centering on George Wilson’s and Jordan Baker’s characters. The casting selection for Myrtle Wilson bewildered me at first, but made more sense having seen how the film was handled so differently from the character in the novel. Trying to ignore how out of place some of these cast members feel leaves us goggle eyed at the big three. Robbed, absolutely robbed of an Oscar for her breakout turn in An Education, Carey Mulligan keeps her streak alive with consistently phenomenal turns. No, she is not perfectly cast as Daisy Buchanan, and maybe a little strangely considering the rest of the movie she seems more like the book’s character than the film’s. Also, no, Daisy is not everyone’s favorite character and her part is written in such a way that perhaps no actress is perfect. Mulligan took the fact that all of this conventional wisdom was against her and did what she could with the role, and what she can do is act. Secondly, the perfect everyman actor in this generation may very well be Tobey Maguire. In films like Seabiscuit and of course Spiderman, he was cast to show that wonderful things can happen to shy, unexceptional people. In The Great Gatsby, he is cast to show that while this unambitious character can find himself in great moments with great people, this does not always lead to greatness. Lastly, enter Leonardo DiCaprio. Arguably the best actor of his generation, DiCaprio was quite simply born to play Jay Gatsby. Sly Stallone was born for Rocky, Bob DeNiro was born for Raging Bull, Jamie Foxx was born for Ray, and Leo DiCaprio was born for The Great Gatsby. It is as simple as that. No one could do this role any better than Leo could on an off day with his hands tied behind his back, but he was as on the money as he has ever been. The complexity of his acting stigma matches that of the Gatsby character to a tee. He reflects the tragedy of Gatsby’s prior life, the hope for his future life, the lost confusion and raw desperation of his present life, and the grandeur and prestige with which he conducts his every act. I have trouble believing still that Fitzgerald was not expressly thinking of DiCaprio when writing the book. Frankly, I am unsure whether to call the casting brilliant, or dismiss it because it was so obvious that even a monkey could have pieced it together.
While casting is one of the most important and overlooked aspects of filmmaking, there is more to a movie than the names that run at the end. The Great Gatsby is a movie about the delusional memories of a reflecting recovering alcoholic who is more or less writing in stream of conscious, and a lot about the movie reflects that. The visuals of the film are unforgettable. The colors are hyperbolized, the angles are unconventional, and the sets seem to emerge from fantasy. The conventional, age old idea of a picture, including a motion picture, is that it acts as a window. The Great Gatsby is one of the movies that stray from that. The film is not to show events as they happened, it shows them as Nick Carraway, a biased and often intoxication unreliable narrator, happens to remember them. If you piece the unrealistic moments from the film with what we can safely assume Nick is thinking then some of the absurdity makes more sense. Imagine Nick describing the yellow car, with the gift of hindsight of course, and saying something to the effect that it was the fastest and wildest car he had been in, but Gatsby drove it was assertiveness and grace. This idea makes the fact that the car is always shot as if it is racing, darting in and out of traffic, stopping on a dime, and cruising at high speeds while the driver never bats an eye and never risks losing his loosely applied straw hat make a lot more sense. Imagine Nick explaining that at one of the parties he felt like Jordan was right with him in spite of the crowds. Now the strange use of close ups to show Jordan even when she is far from Nick fit, as they reflect his memory instead of actual events. Even in one scene in the film, Gatsby is seen waiting outside Nick’s house simply staring upward. Nick probably remembers this as him pulling up and Jay standing amongst the trees, so this is exactly what the movie chooses to show. Similar things occur throughout the narrative, also reflecting Nick’s benefit of hindsight allowing him to emphasize forgettable things that he had since realized were important. These themes, along with the brightened colors and two dimensional minor characters are true to the idea of the film as a string of memories, and it is one of the best representations of memory on screen that there has been in a while. Films being told by a character in the past tense are common, but very rarely is a movie truly allowing the audience to see the distortion of memory this clearly. It is a brilliant touch by the filmmaker who had already made his name in visual presentation and bringing out emotion.
The lack of love that it seems the filmmakers have for Jay Gatsby is erased by the immense love shown to him from Nick Carraway. In real life, Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio are great friends, having worked together in television decades ago. The admiration that Nick has for the Great Gatsby is a central theme, and in fact is the driving point of the plot that initiated Nick’s being asked to tell the story. We are left only slightly heartbroken for Gatsby for the misfortune he endures, but even moreso for Nick for having to see his admired neighbor like he does.
I do not have enough pluses for the grade I would give Fitzgerald’s novel, and it is a shame there is yet to be a great adaptation in the works. Maybe this same bunch ought to do a strict adaptation instead of a creative reinterpretation, which is how I would describe this film. It is a masterpiece of the brushwork of the director and set designers, a great example of what new film technology can do in terms of coloring and visuals, and a revolutionary project on the capabilities film has in portraying memory aside from strict retelling of facts. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, suggests that fictional stories better recreate the atmosphere and sensation of the truth better than simply repeating the facts does. Maybe, by that logic, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is better at representing the complexity of the characters and charm of the setting than a direct adaptation would have been, but maybe now we are thinking too much.