F. Scott Fitzgerald died feeling The Great Gatsby was largely unappreciated and misunderstood. The directors of the three previous film versions of this novella may suffer the same fate as all three were met with poor reviews. The latest attempt is Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s bold and flashy retelling of this great American classic.
Luhrmann is certainly not known for his subtlety. Director of spectacles such as Moulin Rouge and Australia, you know going into a Luhrmann film that it will be an extravagant and over-the-top production, brimming with zim and energy. In The Great Gatsby, this approach proves highly effective in recreating the frenzy of the hedonistic Roaring Twenties.
Decadent, drink-fuelled party scenes that are splashed with glitter and glamour and pulsating with a modern soundtrack capture the passion and zeal of the Long Island of the Prohibition years where the film is set.
The plot follows Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who moves to Long Island in the summer of 1922. He befriends his neighbour, Jay Gatsby, (Leonardo DiCaprio) a mysterious millionaire who throws parties all the time and who is in love with Nick’s married cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Nick is lured into this world of endless money and deceit but ends up being disgusted by the moral emptiness of the wealthy American elite.
Luhrmann has made use of a narration device that involves Nick in a sanatorium writing a book about that era in his life which has left him so depressed as a form of therapy. In both the film and the book, Nick is the non-participating narrator, very much on the periphery of the action. He says of himself that he remains both “within and without” this world of loose morals, lavish parties and jazz.
Maguire is suitably low key in this role and although in the film we never get as comprehensive an insight as we do from this character in the book, the narration frames the film well.
Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the charismatic enigma that is Jay Gatsby. He is back on familiar territory, playing a character who is from a poor family but falls in love with a wealthy woman as he did in Titanic. In this film, DiCaprio displays Gatsby’s determination, charm and hopefulness that borders of delusion as he tried to recreate the past. In the novel, what makes Gatsby so intriguing is that he’s impenetrable as the reader never really knows the real Gatsby.
In Luhrmann’s version, this mysteriousness is built up at the start of the film when we don’t actually see Gatsby until 20 minutes into the feature. That said, the book is a better medium for capturing this ‘unknowability’ as character descriptions can be much more vague than an up close camera shot.
Comparisons with the book are not the best way to view this film; it needs to be viewed in its own context. Where Luhrmann is successful is modernising the themes of moral decay, decadence and the corruption of the American Dream. The soundtrack plays a key role in contemporising these themes.
Luhrmann collaborated with hip hop artist Jay Z and instead of using music from the 1920s, they made use of modern day songs featuring well known artists such as Florence and the Machine, Lana del Ray and Kanye West. Although this move has been much criticised, the music captures the fever pitch of boom-time and sets the pace of the film. Today’s hip hop is centred on fast cars, money and attractive women which were all features of the jazz age. The relevance of modern day music to the themes of Fitzgerald’s novel of the 1920s illustrates the longevity of the book.
One approach of modernising the story that didn’t work, however, was the unnecessary use of 3D. CGI did nothing to enhance the already intoxicatingly dizzy film and should be reserved for action blockbusters.
The film isn’t all booming music, 3D effects and bling. There are some tender scenes such as when Gatsby is meeting Daisy for the first time after five years and in his nervous state, he breaks a clock. We see him at his most human in this moment.
While the purists are deeply unimpressed with Luhrmann’s take on the classic, this fast-paced, hypnotic film confirms Fitzgerald as a storyteller for all the ages. It seems Lurhmann’s version is headed the same way as his predecessors in terms of harsh criticisms. Go on, be an old sport and embrace the fun.