The Great Gatsby (2013)
Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are.
The Great Gatsby is about a non-judgmental young man who moves to Long Island in the roaring ’20s. He sells bonds during the day and returns to his modest shanty at night, right next to door to one of the wealthiest men in West Egg. Soon after arriving, he reconnects with his cousin across the bay, a woman who’s now married to a wealthy, bullheaded philanderer. Not long after, he receives a invitation to one of the notoriously lavish parties that his neighbor is so fond of throwing. Next thing he knows, he’s chumming it up with the host and going on bonafide bro dates with him to speakeasies in Manhattan. Turns out, this Gatsby fella’ has a history with the young man’s cousin, so in the spirit of being a good neighbor and all, the young man gets these two kids back together as they try to rekindle a love once lost.
I know it, you know it, and we all had to read it in high school because it’s the great American novel. Some may take issue with that sentiment, but with each new time that I’ve read it, the love has continued to grow. So with that being said and for a good two years now, I had been dreading this movie’s existence.
Two years ago was when I first heard that Hollywood was bringing Gatsby to the big screen again. Though initially intrigued for all of one second, my interest changed to sadness when Baz Luhrmann entered the frame. Now, The Great Gatsby is a novel that I adore for its subtlety, and last time I checked, Moulin Rouge! ain’t what you’d call a think piece. Of all the people that they could have gotten to adapt this, they get an Australian with a glitter fetish to lead the way. The logic eluded me, and by the time I heard it was being filmed in 3D, all foreseeable hope was lost.
Yep, wasn’t getting my hopes up for this one, no use beating on against the current. But then it went and caught one hell of a lucky break.
In addition to revisiting the source material, I figured I’d go the extra mile by finally taking a look at the 1974 version of Gatsby (“the Robert Redford version” as folks tend to call it). What I found was a sentence-for-sentence adaptation that was so mind-numbingly boring I had to stop watching it halfway through, and I never do that with a movie. It was one of the most drawn-out, lifeless movies I’d ever seen, one that even The Sundance Kid himself couldn’t salvage. So with that sour taste still fresh in my mouth, the prospect of Baz Luhrmann suddenly sounded quite sweet. Heck, if Meyer Wolfsheim showed up in a sequined unitard belting “Like a Virgin” halfway through, it still couldn’t be worse than that garbage I couldn’t finish.
Nevertheless, the skepticism lingered.
When it starts off with Nick Carraway holed up in a loony bin battling a long list of afflictions that start with “morbid alcoholism” of all things, the skepticism didn’t wane. Then we go back in time, back to when Nick was still a wide-eyed broker during the height of prohibition. The scene is one of opulence, of a culture driven by alcohol and excess. It’s an in-your-face imagining of life in The Big Apple and one that plays a much greater role than the one created by Fitzgerald. But unlike the Redford version, it’s alive. It’s fun.
As you’ve likely gathered from the trailer, this vision of extravagance is a theme that carries throughout. No expense is spared from one scene to the next, it moves at an oddly breathless pace at times and it’s understandably an approach that’s been dividing people across the board. After all, The Great Gatsby was never great because of the characters’ surroundings, it was great because of the characters themselves. This is not how Fitzgerald would have imagined it and some of that subtlety would have helped.
Then again, we already got the subtle version in ’74, and though I can’t speak for everyone on the matter, it was pretty effing horrendous. And is it really all that surprising either?
I’m of the mindset that some stories just don’t warrant adaptations, that we should just enjoy them in the medium they were intended to be enjoyed in and leave it at that. There are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, I believe there’s good reason why certain stories are told as novels rather than movies and vice-versa. The Great Gatsby works as a novel because Fitzgerald worked as a writer, and with that in mind, there was only so much that the Redford version could achieve.
I can appreciate the temptation that comes with approaching something of this stature and adapting it through a cut-and-paste process. After all, it’s perfect the way it is, so why fix what isn’t broken? But since there’s just no one-upping the source material in a situation like this, going with what’s familiar and hoping for the best is ultimately a naive temptation.
And that’s why Luhrmann works. Even with an unnecessarily lengthy run time of 142 minutes, he succeeds because he makes a Baz Luhrmann movie instead of a bland re-telling that anyone could have made. There are times when it becomes too much of a Baz Luhrmann movie and things get a bit too dramatic or flashy for their own good, but he still stays true to the heart of the story without smothering it along the way. It’s easy on the eyes, it isn’t nearly as abrasive as Moulin Rouge! was and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a swell cast to work with.
The best thing I can say about Leo is that he’s a fitting Gatsby, which is the most I was really hoping for anyway. He’s at his best when Gatsby reveals his true self as this inviting, level-headed individual that Nick and Daisy would naturally gravitate towards. In my humble opinion, that’s when Leo’s always at his best, when he finally relaxes and acts with pretense. Not that his performance suffers when Gatsby’s putting on airs, I suppose it’s just another instance of wishing Leo would take more roles that would let him lighten up. Dude just loves playing the headcase.
Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, is a fantastic Nick Carraway. Maybe that’s because Nick’s such a level-headed character from beginning to end, but Tobey does a fine job of embodying the qualities that make him such an engaging narrator. As much I’d love to see an adaptation that’s completely devoid of Nick’s narration (if only as an exercise in showing, not telling), I really liked the way it turned out here. It doesn’t come off like someone’s reading from the text (looking at you, Sam Waterston), it sounds like it’s coming from the mouth of Nick Carraway. And while I’m still not sure how I feel about Nick suddenly becoming Gatsby’s best friend during the last 10 minutes or so, it’s hard to fault Luhrmann on that one. All depends on how you read that last chapter, really.
Always nice to see Isla Fisher get some work and Joel Edgerton has it down pat as Tom Buchanan, the rotten sonofabitch that he is. Carey Mulligan is also good as Daisy, which is a complement and then some with Mia Farrow’s unfortunate performance as my only base for comparison.
Two years ago, I never would have imagine writing a review like this. But that’s one of the great things about Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, that for everything we’ve always loved about it, there’s no right way to read it. I don’t expect Luhrmann’s Gatsby to garner the same kind of acclaim over time, and since I doubt this is the last time I’ll see it adapted to film, I can’t imagine it’ll be regarded as the be-all-end-all interpretation. Man, I don’t even expect to be in the majority with this one and nor could I argue with those who find it a travesty. But considering that the novel is a work without equal, it was refreshing to see Luhrmann make it his own. And for a movie that I seemingly had every reason to loathe, you can color me impressed by the end result.