IN TWEET: FINALLY! A BIG-SCREEN ADAPTATION OF THE F. SCOTT FITZGERALD CLASSIC THAT GETS IT RIGHT. LUSH, VISUALLY DAZZLING AND ULTIMATELY HEARTBREAKING.
By now you may have read reviews of THE GREAT GATSBY that bitch about the use of contemporary music, claim the film is all style and no substance or make it seem as though seeing the movie is an experience akin to watching a video game version of an American classic while riding a roller coaster.
Well, Old Sport, all I have to say about those critiques? RUBBISH! Baz Luhrmann’s gorgeous extravaganza is the first adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that gets it right. It’s a summer blockbuster for adults.
THE GREAT GATSBY is a literary masterpiece I have adored for years. It’s a story rife with the alcohol soaked excesses of the idle rich set against a riotous Jazz Age backdrop. Critics who whine about the film depicting some of the major underpinnings of the source material just don’t get it. Have they read the book? Without these sequences of extravagance, THE GREAT GATSBY would be like a GODZILLA movie with no scenes of Tokyo being stomped.
What Luhrmann does particularly well is contextualize the parties, sexual indiscretions and drunken orgies. There is nothing about them that is romanticized or viewed through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. As stylish and sumptuous as the film is throughout, it is not going to make you want to jump into a time machine and head back to Prohibition Era New York City. If you’ve ever been the only sober person in a room full of drunks, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
All of the iconic symbolism is intact and on display. The green light, the “inside vs. outside looking in” duality and, of course, the all-seeing gaze of Doctor TJ Eckelberg. It is all handled with deft skill by a director who clearly has a great deal of affection for the source material. Luhrmann knows what he is doing here and has enough faith that we do too. He resists the temptation to beat us over the head with visuals that would make him seem like the smartest guy in a room full of dummies. That’s refreshing.
Much has been made about the music featured in the film, the use of 3D and the lavish party sequences. If you’re expecting MOULIN ROUGE meets WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET by way of AUSTRALIA, you will be profoundly disappointed. This is Baz Luhrmann’s most restrained, earth-bound film since STRICTLY BALLROOM.
Based on what I read in advance of seeing THE GREAT GATSBY, I was expecting a circus sideshow. I’m now convinced I must have screened a different version of the film, one reserved for real people rather than the jaded, bitter, “too cool for the room” critics. An annoying bunch who seem incapable of reviewing a movie without hewing to the cinema-snob agenda or pulling the stick out of their collective asses.
The most offensively off-base screed, from Chris Nashawaty at Entertainment Weekly, references scenes that are nowhere in the film. It’s one thing to dislike a movie. It’s another thing entirely to express your distaste by making stuff up. So, here’s the quick and dirty guide to everything you’ve read about THE GREAT GATSBY that is overblown or completely untrue:
- There are no scenes featuring hip-hop dancers or DJs spinning club hits. Yes, the soundtrack recording you can buy on iTunes or Amazon does feature a ton of contemporary music. However, only a fraction of it is actually heard in the film. The most intact song is Lana Del Rey’s haunting YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL, which is used to devastating effect. The rest of the cuts are sampled briefly and mixed with period-specific jazz and orchestral music.
- There are no scenes in the 3D print that depict anyone or anything jumping into your lap, swinging out at you on trapeze or exploding in your face. This is not a Jazz Age AVATAR. Baz Luhrmann has given numerous interviews where he discusses his application of 3D and why he went there. It’s an effective use of the technology that draws you deeper into the proceedings. Before you even realize it, you become a participant in the parties at Gatsby’s mansion and a bystander for some of the more intimate, uncomfortable sequences that dominate the latter two thirds of the film.
- This is not a manic freak show of party sequences and digital effects wizardry nor is it a 2 hour and 22 minute music video. In fact, I was surprised at how quickly Luhrmann transitioned from the excess to the intimate. It’s an elegant, three act approach that moves from the big party set pieces and period razzle dazzle to the reunion of Daisy and Gatsby and, finally, to the emotional drama and physical violence that sweep us toward a heartbreaking finale.
If you are not familiar with THE GREAT GATSBY, you might want to stop reading here to guarantee yourself a spoiler-free experience. The movie is a faithful adaptation of the novel and follows the plot right to the end.
The characters in THE GREAT GATSBY are often as vapid, empty and vile as they are fabulously wealthy. In fact, Luhrmann pulls no punches when it comes to the lack of morality of key characters or the way men treat women and minorities. This is a running theme in the movie that is not nearly as palpable in the novel. Tom Buchanan (played with loutish swagger by Joel Edgerton) is a racist, violent, old money bastard. Women are his to possess, toy with and screw. If they piss him off, he is not above a merciless backhanding. Tom’s frequent references to racial and economic superiority are tossed off as casually as the ice cubes he drops into his next cocktail.
There does, however, have to be some basic humanity to the characters or the film would quickly become an unpleasant bore. Luhrmann understands this and resists the temptation to turn Tom into a cartoon villain. There is no mustache twirling on display here (something that served the plot of MOULIN ROUGE quite well).
On some level, Tom does love both his wife Daisy (the luminous Carey Mulligan) and his “wrong side of the tracks” mistress Myrtle Wilson (a nice turn by an almost unrecognizable Isla Fisher). Unfortunately, how and when he shows his affection is often too little, too late or destroyed by anger. For all his cocksure bravado, Tom Buchanan is an empty, insecure man. The guy who bristles when he is introduced as “a polo player” and never shows his true feelings for the women in his life until an outside force threatens to pull them from his clutches.
This is Maguire’s most accomplished big-screen work in ages and puts to rest all of my bitter memories of his whiney version of Spider Man. The framing device has Nick writing about his memories of Gatsby while going through therapy in a medical facility where he’s being treated for, among other things, his alcoholism. I’m not usually a fan of voice over narration but here it is used quite well. It’s an effective means of moving the story forward while also working in major passages from the novel. Maguire looks gaunt and wasted as he recalls his experiences on Long Island and does a nice job of making the transition from wide-eyed naiveté to broken man.
One of the biggest of many problems with the 1974 adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY was the casting of Gatsby and Daisy. Robert Redford certainly looked the part but his aloof, detached take on the role obliterated any of the vulnerabilities and insecurities that make Gatsby’s ultimate demise such an epic tragedy. Then there was the criminal miscasting of Mia Farrow. Let’s just say a cardboard cut-out would have had more chemistry with Redford. Her Daisy was big screen Ambien.
Here, Carey Mulligan is exactly how I envisioned Daisy every time I read the book. A beautiful creature who craves the love of a lifetime but not as much as she does the trappings of wealth. She is that elusive bird, the one that will perch on your windowsill until you stop putting out the seed. Given the choice, Daisy opts for the easy path, that of the “beautiful little fool” who is as much the creator of her tender trap as she is the victim of it. Mulligan brings Daisy to life in wonderful and subtle ways that make her story arc even more achingly sad.
The key to any adaption of THE GREAT GATSBY is going to be the actor cast in the title role. Leonardo DiCaprio nails it in ways both expected and delightful. The camera loves him here more than any film he has starred in as an adult yet, this is not an adoring picture of the man that is Jay Gatsby or the man that was James Gatz. Luhrmann lures the audience into a seductive world of glamorous excess, just as Nick Carraway is drawn in. Then the director lets DiCaprio gradually chip away at the self-created artifice.
The two most powerful scenes in the film owe a great deal of their success to DiCaprio’s astute, nuanced and wonderfully quirky take on the role. He is an awkward, jittery mess during his manufactured meet-cute with Daisy at Nick’s cottage. Gatsby goes out of his way to convince Nick to set up the meeting without telling Daisy its true purpose but then cannot resist his control freak impulses. He turns the cottage into a Mini-Me version of his own stately castle, an edifice that itself exists solely to impress Daisy. The scene is as funny as it is tragic. You can’t help but know all of the beauty and perfection on display is about to collapse out from under these characters.
The climatic scene at The Plaza Hotel has gotten a fair amount of press because Luhrmann has pointed to it as a prime example of the reason he wanted to film a 3D version. I’m inclined to agree with him. Indeed, the sequence is a stunner. It’s that rare combination of acting technique and technical prowess that work in concert to create a raw, visceral and shocking explosion of emotion. In an otherwise deliberately measured performance, DiCaprio’s volcanic eruption after being taunted by Tom is a sight to behold. In 3D, you feel like you are witnessing something very bad and very personal that you probably should not be seeing. The audience I saw the film with gasped and then fell deadly silent for the rest of the scene.
THE GREAT GATSBY was the first novel that made me cry. Even though I knew the ending and could gird myself for the death of Gatsby, the tragedy of his life and the magnitude of his unrequited love for Daisy Buchanan, I was moved to tears more than once during this movie. It’s as over the top as it is grounded. As vulgar as it is profound. As hollow as it is full of resounding emotion. It is THE GREAT GATSBY and this is all just as it should be.
RONTHINK RATING: A
This is one of the extended TV trailers for THE GREAT GATSBY and also one that I think captures the essence of the movie better than any of the promo videos I’ve seen. Enjoy!
NOTE: YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO VIEW THIS VIDEO FROM ANY DESKTOP OR LAPTOP BROWSER. SOME MOBILE BROWSERS, HOWEVER, DO NOT SUPPORT VIDEO PLUG-INS. IF THAT IS THE CASE, CLICK HERE FOR A LINK TO THE VIDEO AND OPEN IN YOUR YOU TUBE APP.