May 07, 2013

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

Spoiler Alert (sort of...)! I won't be giving anything away about the characters or the plot of the film since almost everyone has read F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic novel. However, if you want to view Baz Luhrmann's latest interpretation without any preconceived notions, don't read the rest of this post until after you've seen the film (opening to general audiences on Friday, May 10).

OK, if you're still with me, here we go! Last night, I was privileged to be one of the first in Milwaukee to see the much-anticipated 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite books. Postponed from its original 2012 Thanksgiving release, I waited impatiently those additional six months until this week's premiere. My excitement built to a frenzy that became nearly impossible to satisfy. I felt a lot like Gatsby who spent five years dreaming Daisy into an insurmountable object of perfection, only to be disappointed:
"There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” 
In my heart, I longed for a brilliant portrayal of the glamour and opulence of New York in the Jazz Age, as well as a faithful depiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald's beautifully tragic novel. In my head, I suppose I knew I was being "a beautiful little fool." Film adaptations never seem to compare to the uniquely personal experience of reading a book.


Like Nick Carraway at Gatsby's parties, I felt at once “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled."

First the "Not So Great Gatsby":
  • 3D: I have never been a fan of 3D movies and was very skeptical about a 3D Gatsby. The filming did not achieve the effect that Baz Luhrmann intended. Rather than appearing larger-than-life, the people and locations seems more like cartoons. The flying shirts, snow, and confetti were more distracting than enhancing. Some bits of confetti that landed on Gatsby and Daisy were shaped like butterflies, not so subtly referencing the characters' metamorphoses. Those massive clumps of Christmas tree tinsel and metallic confetti that littered Gatsby's house and yard throughout the film might have been more effective if the film had been released, as originally intended, during the holiday season. 
  • Nick Carraway: I did not enjoy Tobey Maguire's portrayal nor Baz Luhrmann's reinvention of the iconic narrator of The Great Gatsby. Luhrmann's Carraway not only narrates the story, but also writes the novel from a sanitarium in the midwest where he is being treated for "morbid alcoholism." "His" words fly at us in 3D and in the end, Carraway has composed Fitzgerald's novel. Although speculated that both Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby were semi-autobiographical, suggesting that Nick wrote The Great Gatsby takes the idea too far. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in Paris at the beginning of his career, long before being unsuccessfully treated and ultimately succombing to alcoholism.
  • Gatsby's house: Aside from the art deco interiors and art nouveau staircase, Gatsby's house in West Egg is not opulent; it's a garish Disney castle further contributing to the comic book feel of the film.

  • Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan: I know that I'm not supposed to like Tom, but Joel Edgerton's depiction was so repugnant that I wonder how Daisy could have ever loved him. In the novel, although truly in love with Gatsby, when urged to admit that she never loved Tom, Daisy is unable to consent: "Oh, you want to much!" she cried to Gatsby. "I love you now -- isn't that enough? I can't help what's past." She began to sob helplessly. "I did love him once -- but I loved you too." How could possibly she have loved this Tom?
  • Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker: Although towering over Maguire's Carraway, Elizabeth Debicki doesn't begin to reach the height of Jordan Baker's complexity. She seems neither modern nor athletic, neither observant nor cynical. There is no chemistry between Nick and Jordan in this film, making it difficult to believe that Nick would end up "halfway in love with her."

Now the "Pretty Great" Gatsby:
  • The fashion: Brooks Brothers suits, bow ties, straw hats, pastel shirts, sparkling Prada dresses, and so many Tiffany! 

  • Nick's cottage: I loved Nick's little cottage next door to Gatsby's ridiculous monstrosity. I was always bothered by the rundown shack that served as Nick's house in the 1974 film. I always figured Gatsby would have torn it down to avoid living next to such an eyesore. The 2013 cottage is a cross between a fairy tale and a craftsman's style bungalow. I'd love to live there (without the profusion of funeral bouquets)!

  • Carey Mulligan as Daisy: Never a fan of Mia Farrow's 1974 portrayal of Daisy Buchanan, I was enraptured by Mulligan's. Farrow plays Daisy in the same hazy, vacant stupor that she used to portray the drugged Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby. Carey Mulligan's Daisy is flirtatious, nervous, enraptured, and heartbreaking in her flawed loveliness.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby: Gatsby is an enigma. He's mysterious, handsome, charming, and devious. Yet even with all his wealth and influence, he remains hopeful and vulnerable. DiCaprio is at once youthful and mature.  His expressions reveal the complexity of Gatsby's self invention. Leo is great at playing committed, desperate characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want and usually succomb to their efforts. As much as I enjoyed his Gatsby, at times he did seem a bit too familiar. In one scene, Gatsby stands behind Daisy whispering in her ear. I half expected him to spread her arms and declare, "I'm the king of the world!" Nonetheless, DiCaprio's portrayal of Gatsby was superior to Robert Redford's in 1974 (although Redford was equally handsome!).
  • The soundtrack: As with his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge soundtracks, Baz Luhrmann chose to infuse contemporary music into this film. Jay-Z's distillation of hip hop, pop, and alternative music (Florence + The Machine, Jack White, Gotye, Beyonce, Andre 3000, along with 1920s-era jazz is quite intoxicating.
Photos courtesy of The Great Gatsby on Pinterest

Jordan Baker states: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is the quintessential large party, his own intimate portrayal of the great American novel. I felt like one of Gatsby's uninvited guests. I heard there was going to be a big party and I just showed up (four days early). I felt dizzy, over-stimulated, like I had indulged in too many of those enormous glasses of Champagne and gin on screen. Ever the dreamer, loyal to Fitzgerald's brilliant novel, and wanting a film to live up to my illusions, I paraphrase his final lines: 
"[I] believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning -- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
May 7, 2013 Photo of the day: 
"Boats against the current..."