HIP LIFE REVIEW: The Great Gatsby or Why We Still Think Baz Luhrmann is “Spectacular, Spectacular”

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my opinion, this is the only way to make The Great Gatsby. The 1974 rendition, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, was full of the “cheese” factor and low on zeitgeist, though it does share one defining, humorous moment with the new version. The moment I speak of is when the audience first sees the protagonist proclaim, “I’m Gatsby,” and flash a brilliant smile. Still, the 2013 version has had a decided upgrade in overall cast. DiCaprio delivers a predictably good performance, Joel Edgerton strikes the appropriate air of harsh brutality as Tom, and Elizabeth Debicki fits the novel’s description of Jordan Baker so well it’s as though she’s just materialized from the page. Carey Mulligan’s doe-eyed portrayal actually suits the character of weak, manipulative Daisy well, but the real standout is Tobey Maguire. Not only does he succeed in conveying the neutrality of Nick Carraway, but I haven’t seen such convincing acting from Maguire since the days of Cider House Rules and Pleasantville. He is all grown up and shines as the best performance in the film.

I do not think it is a mistake that The Great Gatsby was captured on film first in the mid-seventies, and now in 2013. While the message may be universal (for Americans, at least) the specific messages and meanings would not have been as pertinent in the 1950s, for instance. The directors of the two versions have chosen two time periods when alcohol and drug use and abuse were on the rise, the party culture rearing its head and materialism widening the chasm between the have and have-nots. It was incredibly smart of Luhrmann to remake this film now.

The adaptation itself was very concentrated. Not ignoring any major plot points nor running too long in length, The Great Gatsby chose to focus both on the love story between Jay and Daisy, but also on the development of Nick as a writer. We see him denying his artistic side at the beginning of the film only to give way to typing across the screen and developing a whole manuscript by the end. The role of narrator was defined by putting Nick in a sanitarium at the beginning of the movie and letting him alternately speak with his physician and write in the journal provided for him by the doctor. This technique required that the narrator and his duties not become stagnant. There was less emphasis on Meyer Wolfsheim and the back story of Jordan Baker (unlike in the book, we never find out that she is an athletic cheat) and just the right amount of Myrtle and George in the film.

The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg make their ominous, God-like appearance much to the thrill of the literary crowd and the green light does not prove to be heavy-handed in this film. One stylistic transition I loved was the drive from country to city, shown on a map with the color drained out as they travel further and further away from their riches and into the poor, ashen squalor of the everyday working man who struggles to make ends meet. We see this a few times so that it becomes a powerful form of repetition. Luhrmann has a great gift for sustaining and intensifying already dramatic moments. He employs some rather smart techniques in Gatsby, such as focusing on an object and its noise (the ringing phone, the ice pick) which keeps the audience invested in that moment and forces them to be on-looking participants of such tense scenes. Aligning the viewer’s perspective with that of Nick was important as Luhrmann used the trademark double-time and wild camera work at the beginning of the film to signify that this would be how Nick felt being introduced into such a chaotic society. Gradually though we lose the skittishness as he acclimates to his role and surroundings and the audience can easily follow the rest of the action.

While we’re on the topic of senses, the visuals in this movie are stunning. Worried that, as most movies do now, Gatsby would have pandering shots incorporated solely for the 3-D crowd, I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not so. The pure glamor and glitz showcased throughout the film shone from every angle with clean, sharp, polished lines creating a textural fantasy for viewers and if no one from the costuming department wins an Academy Award, this reviewer is likely to revolt. Each of Daisy’s gowns, in particular, more dazzling than the last, was crafted from pure elegance. Furs, diamonds, lace, pearls- this is a set and cast dripping in the decadence so characteristic of the upper class at the time. We believe it.

The one flaw I noted in this film was its music. Standards are set frivolously high when it comes to Baz Luhrmann’s work, mainly due to Moulin Rouge, but also to the popular remake of Romeo and Juliet from 1996 (hey, there’s Leo again!) It is likely that Luhrmann had less control over the soundtrack this time though given that Jay-Z was an executive producer of the film. Jay-Z inserted his big ego in the form of rap music, some of which is his own or that of his wife’s, which, with a couple of exceptions, did not suit the film as well as it could have. I’m still working on developing an “alternative soundtrack”, a lark like fan-fiction, but there’s a reason you have to purchase the whole album on itunes in order to get some of the better songs. Moments which could have been further elevated by musical selections fell flat throughout the film (once again, with exceptions.)

The Great Gatsby, along with, more recently, Les Miserables, The Help, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and (to a less extent) Life of Pi, might prove that film adaptations are finally becoming what they should have been all along- artistically-inclined, true representations of great novels.

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