The book was better. The end.
Shit. Are you still here? Fine. I hate to be “that guy” especially since I never like to let my opinion of a source material influence my opinion of an adaptation of said source material…BUT HEAR ME OUT!!! ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a book that does not lend itself to film very well in my opinion. It relies heavily on subtly and narration. It also is basically a series of observances with a loose story to connect them. Film is a medium that can also rely on subtly, but for the most part it deals in the obvious so it can satisfy general audiences that Hollywood continually thinks is too stupid to pick up on anything that isn’t spelled out for them.
I should make no secret in saying that ‘The Great Gatsby’ is one of my favorite novels perhaps for different reasons than others, but I will delve into that later. I’ve seen the 1974 Jack Clayton film adaptation with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, but I am not a huge fan. It was almost completely faithful to the novel, but really lacked any kind of intensity or emotion. It was kind of like watching a big budget high school play based on the book. Then a couple of years ago another cinematic adaptation was announced. Needless to say, I was anticipating/dreading this movie. On one hand I feel the director, Baz Luhrman, is probably the best possible choice in actually injecting some life into a movie based on a beloved story we have seen countless times already as he has done before to great effect. His updated version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ successfully brought to life a tired story with youthful energy. (And a kickass soundtrack.) However, as I previously mentioned, ‘Gatsby’ is a story that requires subtly within the larger-than-life visuals of the 1920’s Jazz Age it takes place in. Was Luhrman and company successful?
Yes… technically….I guess. I mean it has everything that an film adaptation of the novel should be: it follows the story pretty well, it looks good, and the actors are all fine. But there is one crucial element that every movie SHOULD have: a soul.
An adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Long Island-set novel, where Midwesterner Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, is lured into the lavish world of his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Soon enough, however, Carraway will see through the cracks of Gatsby’s nouveau riche existence, where obsession, madness, and tragedy await.
To start off, the biggest double-edged sword this film presents me is its extravagance. Now, on a visual side, this is absolutely perfect. This film is visual candy, and my eyes enjoyed almost every second of what I was looking at. Every image I had in my head while reading the book is translated perfectly onto the screen. The 3-D is also surprisingly good. All the parties are as extravagant and overwhelming as Fitzgerald described, and every actor looks tailor-made for their respective roles. This extravagance comes at the cost of the film being able to actually make me feel a real emotion; it’s just cotton candy. Sure, it tastes really good, but it isn’t filling in the least. I felt nothing for the characters on screen, nor the actions taking place. Please don’t read the following as pretentious, but I am sure casual audiences and teenagers will love this movie. A good portion of these people will have thought the book and older adaptations was boring. They’ll probably show it in high schools, and kids may actually pay attention because of the soundtrack. Now, I have nothing wrong with classic literature being made more exciting. Hell, I hope this movie makes people revisit the book. I just wanted an adaptation that made me feel something other than boredom. This is a classic story that laments the death of optimism in America, and critiques the vapidness of bored rich people. I continually hear people say “Oh, I wish I lived in the 20’s. It would have been so much fun!” I mean I guess it would be if you were rich, white, and hollow. Hell, times aren’t that much different with useless bored people celebrating nothing, and not contributing; all in some attempt to actually feel some kind of emotion, or fill the empty hole within each human’s soul with distractions. Meanwhile, the dreamers are continually crushed beneath the boot of reality. We root for Gatsby in the book because he dares to actually dream for something noble. He uses the vapidness of money and reputation as a means to an end. He wants the perfect life; the American Dream, and in the end, this kills him. Nothing is perfect, especially life, and dreams don’t always come true. It’s the hard truth the novel presents the reader. I love the novel so much because I relate to it. I see happy people, and I want to fill the hole in my life that same way they do; hoping that it may make me happy. Then I often here the truths these people tell me; how no one is truly happy. Happiness is just the moment before we need more happiness. It distracts us for the harshness of life, and as cognizant beings, we get greedy for it, hoping that we can forget for just a second longer. The rich people of the 1920’s looked for escape, just as the internet obsessed culture of today is. It’s what makes this story such a timeless tale. Fitzgerald was a genius with his words and presented his messages in a subtle manner. Luhrman also goes about relaying these messages subtly.
If there is a significant moment from the novel, or theme that needs to be conveyed, this film will make sure you fucking understand. Someone gets hit by a car? Let’s show that scene in not one, but two slow motion flashbacks. The metaphors will be leaping at you in 3-D just as much as the confetti and snow will. I appreciate that this film is really trying to be deep and meaningful but it fails at holding any weight. The film runs well over two hours, leaving Luhrman more than enough time to actually delve into just as much subtlety as he did in over-the-top parties. Maybe it’s fitting that this movie is as empty as the rich culture Fitzgerald originally criticized.
I’m not stepping off the soap box. Sorry about that. Back to the review! The film sounds great with a Jay-Z produced soundtrack. While not as strong as the director’s previous outings, the hip-hop/dance/pop cocktail is the closest the film comes to actual inspiration, and a heartbeat. From what I’ve been told the musical choices the film makes have been somewhat controversial. While initially off-putting to hear such modern music in a period piece, the music eventually fits right in with the world Luhrman has created. Just as jazz entertained the masses of the 20’s, the popular music fills the radio stations and dance clubs of today.
The cast is all pretty solid with a few standouts. I think Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play Gatsby at some point in his career, and he does the role justice. The scene in which he prepares to meet Daisy again is wonderfully awkward. Nick Carraway is one of my favorite literary characters, and I think Maguire is actually another perfect fit. He has always been good as the wallflower in previous roles. Seriously, the guy is like the white Morgan Freeman in terms of narrating movies he appears in. He and Maguire have a pretty strong chemistry that no doubt stems from their real life friendship. I will never really get beyond Carey Mulligan being Sally Sparrow, but she continues to do wonders as characters I would normally hate in the hands of lesser actresses. Joel Edgerton does just fine in the role of Tom, but his character suffers the most in terms of actual character. He is more like a card board cutout of what is the novel. I really would have liked to have seen more of Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker. I haven’t seen her in anything before, but this was a splendid introduction. Not to mention Isla Fischer and Jason Clarke as George and Myrtle Wilson who both having nothing but extended cameos in the proceedings. I understand their roles are relatively small in the novel, but it just seems like a waste of great talent.
There are some minor changes to the novel, and some work, while others don’t. I like the way the narration is fit into the film by having Carraway using the story as a form of therapy. (Although I HATED the stupidly obvious title he picks for his memoirs. Just reminded me of the classic Arrested Development joke, “Hey, that’s the name of the show.”) It adds nothing to the overall story, but it does allow for some reflection, and meaning as well as some of Fitzgerald’s fantastic writing. I really wish Daisy’s daughter played a bigger role, because that is a fairly big factor into understanding her character. Of course, this version’s Daisy is played more for sympathy than the careless version in the novel. It didn’t work for me, but it may have for others. (Although the friend I saw this with said she still came off as a bitch.) Also gone is Gatsby’s father, who made his son’s funeral more poignent. The absence of those characters are just nitpicks however.
In closing, this isn’t technically a bad movie. As an adaptation, it’s fairly good. As a movie though, it lacks a heartbeat. There is nothing here that makes me care the same way I did when I read the novel. Obviously I may be in the minority as the film was a hit at the box office this weekend. I think it’s pretty cool that the novel is being celebrated again, instead of just dreaded by high schoolers though. Maybe they will hit the mark when the next inevitable adaptation comes around, or maybe a great cinematic “Gatsby” is just as elusive as the green light at the end of the dock.