Last Christmas break I reread my copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby at my parents’ house in Plano. I was just beginning to get used to the fact that it’s my parents’ house now and not my house; I was on the cusp of graduating and getting married. What better time to read a classic novel about trying to find one’s place in America? Having read the book once before for high school English and remembering it fondly, I found myself more enamored with it the second time around. Gatsby is a heavy read- heavy, not dense; it’s short, but every sentence, constructed meticulously for maximum impact, carries so much meaning. Those sentences paint a picture of characters so caught up in their greed and desire that they never see how empty they keep making themselves. If someone were to call it The Great American Novel, I wouldn’t argue with them. Reading Gatsby in the winter was a quiet joy; it’s not often that I’ll read a book where it’s not the plot that has me captivated but the way the author carries a phrase. Gatsby was such a book; the wording of the final page left me nearly devastated.
If Gatsby the book was a quiet joy, Gatsby the movie was an enormously loud one. The adjectives that come to mind and were probably bandied about in the reviews are “opulent”, “visually stunning”, and “breath-taking”. All are true, but they hardly tell the whole story. Gatsby’s detractors built on those adjectives by calling it “overblown”, “too long”, and “melodramatic”. I won’t argue with those superlatives either, but I don’t think those qualities automatically preclude greatness. In fact, as I watched Gatsby, I found myself enjoying those operatic flaws, getting caught up in the tidal wave of visual candy and weighty emotions.
The story of The Great Gatsby follows the book quite nicely. Usually reading the book so soon beforehand doesn’t bode well for whether or not I like a movie, but in this case it enhanced the experience. Our narrator in the movie is Nick Carroway, played with endearing naiveté by the actor formerly known as Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He moves to New York almost on a whim to make his way in the stock business. He reconnects with his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her bull of a husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), who is cheating on Daisy with someone of decidedly less means (Isla Fisher). Their carelessly extravagant lifestyle is foreign to Nick, but they are nothing compared to Nick’s neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws parties so debauched they must have made Jay-Z blush as he curated the movie’s soundtrack.
We learn with Nick that Gatsby actually knew Daisy earlier in their lives and is in fact in New York to woo her. There’s a green light at the end of the Daisy’s and Tom’s dock that served as an effective metaphor in the book for Gatsby’s American dream. The green light makes an appearance in the movie too, though this isn’t a movie in need of metaphors; it’s full to the brim of imagery without them. This is a Baz Lurhmann movie, but of the Moulin Rouge! variety and not Australia. By that I mean that he overloads you with richly detailed camera shots sweeping through scenes of intense parties and hammers emotion into you with the blunt effectiveness of Greek tragedy (Moulin Rouge!); and he does not bore you with a dead screenplay and wooden, unmotivated characters (Australia). In other words, The Great Gatsby is a great success. And how could we expect otherwise with DiCaprio involved? I’m not sure when he last made a bad movie, and if he did, I haven’t seen it. He’s superb once again as Gatsby. I’d go so far as to say he’s the best part of the movie; his perfectly modulated passion and deceptive charm may end up being one of the best performances of the year.
Not to sell the rest of the cast short- they’re all stellar as well. Edgerton plays Tom as blustering, but hardly a fool. He catches on rather quickly to Gatsby’s intentions, and stages a hypocritical and tragic attempt to hold on to Daisy. Mulligan is light as a feather as Daisy; if there’s anyone better than her at staring meaningfully off into the distance, tell me, and I’ll have a new celebrity crush. And Maguire turns in another nice, nuanced performance that will be overshadowed by DiCaprio’s showier role. Trust me though, if it weren’t for Maguire, Luhrmann’s whole house of cards might have come tumbling down.
I understand that many critics thought it was too on the nose, and perhaps Luhrmann overreaches for importance at points. I know of several people (not critics- real people) who couldn’t help but check their watches throughout the movie. I can’t argue with that; it is very long, and sometimes it felt long to me too. But the sheer ambition of the movie carried me through to the very end. So few movies really aim for the stands; most are just content with grounders or pop flies*. Luhrmann saw a chance to do something awesome, and he went for it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the music. The soundtrack itself is uneven when listened to on its own, a mixture of big-band, hip-hop, and pop music that doesn’t really take off all together. But the songs are expertly woven into the movie. Luhrmann obviously has a thing for putting modern music with period movies, but if Moulin Rouge! wasn’t enough to convince you that it’s an effective strategy for conveying the emotions and feeling of each moment to a modern audience, The Great Gatsby should do the trick.
As loud and over-the-top as the movie is, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a quieter movie theatre when it was over. My friend tweeted at me, “’Twas a thinker.” Luhrmann wisely ends the movie using the same exact words as the book, and they were as singularly affecting as ever. I may have to go reread Gatsby all over again.