The Great Gatsby
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire,
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Decandant empty opulence.
Gatsby is a role destined for DiCaprio. Gatsby is a man with a hidden background – mythic stories abound and he is steeped in a fog that slowly dissipates in Fitzgerald’s eponymous novel. Everything bubbles away at the surface, layer by layer, until Gatsby is exposed and laid bare – a persona which DiCaprio’s sublime acting fits to a tee. The film is absolutely stunning, in all senses of the word. It takes the idea of the cautionary tale and Fitzgerald’s take on the American Dream, it’s views on hope, the past and the future and magnifies them by about a thousand. The set design, the use of contemporary music as well the sharp acting and script deliver a meaningful reimagining of the American Classic.
It’s definitely a film that will divide critics; Luhrmann’s always been about as subtle as a sledgehammer with his symbolism, and “The Great Gatsby” is decked out in it. In the original novel, for example, Carraway is meant to partially embody the prototypical unreliable narrator – in the film, he’s recounting the tale to his psychiatrist who is observing him. In essence, the quintessential message of both the novel (and the film) has been people chasing an ideal/dream and change. Gatsby embodies change and fights against the old money – he chases a dream that can never exist and is willing to go to any lengths to get it. Just like the lake that separates them, the symbolism of water being a constantly changing and powerful force (think of erosion or the movement of water), Gatsby and the noveau rich inhabitants of West Egg take on the old money nested in East Egg.
The film is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who moves to New York and starts to rent a cottage next to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), who lives across the water from Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Daisy is married to over exuberant adulterer Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick starts having to keep secrets, like Tom’s affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher) in the Valley of Ashes or Gatsby’s secret pining for Daisy. Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) pops in ominously every so often with Gatsby. Gatsby, it appears, can buy everything with his money, except love. Tom clings to the ways of the old and traditions, and Daisy is stuck between the two.
It is not a film for everyone; the film feels empty, it jump cuts frequently, it plays fast and loose with the source material and it blows up characters/scenes to an un-relatable extent. But that’s kind of the point – the old adage in film is “Show, don’t tell”. And this film perfectly embodies the society that Fitzgerald was trying to warn against and to potray; a society where the good times fade in seconds, where everything is too good to seem true, where dreams turn into nightmares, where anyone can make their own destiny and change their past, and where decadent and opulence replace the humanity and personal relationships we forge. A world where everyone ‘knows’ each other, but no-one really knows anyone. The film feels like one big pomp, and that’s alright – it is what the author intended. The world that the ‘mythic’ version of Gatsby (not the real and vulnerable man) inhabits is based on foundations which aren’t there. It’s leading to one of the world’s worst financial crises – a world where things happen too fast and nothing makes sense as everything unravels. The film captures this atmosphere brilliantly and gives it to the audience in spades.
It’s meant to potray an ultimately downward spiral that ends with the inevitable; and that leaves some feeling uneasy. A few critics have made light of the fact that Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is used, stereotypically to represent the Jazz Age/Roaring Twenties. Where’s the problem? The film is aiming to recreate the over popular stereotypes that were present in the age and to evoke a sense of unease and discord within it; using music that we instantly associate with a certain period time or emotion is a sure fire way of doing this.
The casting work well as ensemble piece with DiCaprio at the head; Mulligan’s Daisy is just the right amount of indecisive and torn, with a sprinkle of vulnerability. Edgerton’s racist and boorish Tom is spot on, while Isla Fisher and her husband (played by Jason Clarke) show the unintended victims of the pursuit of dreams.
Fitzgerald wanted to remind Americans that the relentless pursuit of a dream might have far reaching and deep consequences- some potentially tragic and life altering. The tale is also a commentary on the relentless march of change and what happens to those who resist it. As we came out of the cinema, I said to my partner; “Either Luhrmann’s a genius or this was one of the worst films that we’ve ever seen”. And it took us awhile to digest that the emptiness, the endless in-your-face metaphors and symbolism, and the ridiculous set design where actually the true vessel for much of the story telling. And it works ridiculously well if you follow it as such; if you can’t engage with it, you’ll be bored out of your wits thought.
Small production details speak volumes; in the Buchanan household, there are only paintings or collections of paintings every so often. In the Gatsby mega-mansion, there is a wall that Gatsby walks past that contain hundreds, if not thousands of paintings (all assumed to be relatively valuable). Gatsby forcing himself into the lives of the old rich – the self made man who didn’t inherit his money is creatively well done. The cluttering of Gatsby’s walls as he desperately tries to fit in and prove himself to the world, and to his inner soul, really weigh down on the audience. Maguire's possibly understated performance as Nick is important; Nick’s distaste towards the rich by the end embodies Fitzgerald’s own views.
The score, especially the use of some of the more current and popular pieces seem at odds with the film; but again, a pervading sense of unease is potentially what Fitzgerald created in the novel.
Yes, it’s hyperbolic. Yes, it’s over the top. But isn’t that what the Twenties were about? Isn’t the shambolic pretense of depth exactly what Fitzgerald described?
The real major criticism is that Baz Luhrmann doesn’t leave much to the imagination; the director is the embodiment of literal realism, which leaves little scope other than to gasp along at the visual spectacle on offer like a circus act that gets revealed towards the end.
What the Mr. Thought:
Luhrmann doesn’t do anything by halves, and it’s not always done well. But he captures the essence, and that’s what matters.
Go see it – but be sure that you’re ready to keep up with a relentless cut. The film may leave you feeling out of breath till the climactic third act. It is all about fleeting moments of innocence that can never be captured.
What the Misses Thought:
As soon as we left the cinema I didn't know what to think. I was torn. Half of me was like "WOW!" and the other half..."What did I just watch?"
I can definitely see people being split on their opinions of this film, but it really is worth a watch!
But you didn't hear it from us,
Mr & Misses