The Great Gatsby is one of my all-time favorite novels. This is not an exaggeration; it is a book that sits prominently on my bookshelf at home, worn from repeated readings. So I was filled with mixed emotion upon hearing of the new Baz Luhrmann production of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, churning with an internal wrestling between enthusiasm and hesitation, hope and despair. The book had been adapted to film once before, unsuccessfully, in my opinion. Would this new film repeat the past failures of adaptation, or manage to capture the essence of the novel in all its American-dream-damning glory?
I'm happy to report, The Great Gatsby falls into the latter. The film captures the story of Nick Carraway's summer in New York, being drawn into the tumultuous romances and affairs of his wealthy cousins, Daisy and Tom, and his enigmatic and idealistic neighbor, Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby is lavish, excessive, over-the-top, and vibrant. This is not a subtle film. (Nor is the book. Fitzgerald is quite straightforward when it comes to his symbolism and imagery, e.g. the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg representing the eyes of God.) Luhrmann's bombastic images of Gatsby's parties, the mansions of East and West Egg, and the bustling metropolis of 1920s New York are wonderfully lush. This is not surprising; Luhrmann's past filmography (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, Australia) reveals his tendency towards the dramatic and extravagant. Yet he has also taken care to remain close to the source material, using much of the novel's exact dialogue and using narration directly from Fitzgerald's pen. The costumes and production design are detailed and marvelous. Gatsby's suits and Daisy's dresses are each a wonder of 1920s sartorial elegance.
Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of the titular character is the best on-screen version I've seen yet. He looks the part, and exudes both an outer charm and inner brooding. He is at once pleasant proper, while also being inauthentic and aloof. The scene where Gatsby and Daisy are first reunited in Nick's home dances the line between humorous and affecting, all bound up in DiCaprio's performance. This Gatsby fits Daisy's description and confession: he always looks so cool. When he does get flustered, it is a pent-up passion that arises from years of obsession and idealism, the pursuit of a dream bound up in an already-married fool of a girl. The other main performances--Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom, and Tobey Maguire as Nick--are also compelling, particularly Mulligan as the sweet and naively destructive Daisy.
“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”
Allow me to defend the soundtrack. I know that having a 1920s-era story filled with Jay-Z, Lana Del Rey, and Florence + The Machine can seem a bit anachronistic. Yet Gatsby is such a fantastic and timeless tale because it's exactly that: timeless. The story of a rags-to-riches man obsessed with an idealized romance fits squarely in the current cultural narrative of North America. Let's look at the United States of the 1920s and the 2000s. Excessive wealth; stocks rising and falling in rapid succession; the hook-up hyped-up sex culture and ubiquity of alcohol and drugs in the party scene; materialism, consumerism, and whateverism. A soundtrack full of hip-hop and thumping dance beats captures the heart of this world of excess and instant gratification.
Gatsby is just as much a part of the millennial generation as the jazz age. He is a young man who literally creates his own identity from thin air, compromising any sense of morals for a singular dream of romance with an idealized woman. Material wealth and marriage vows; they are all temporary to Gatsby just so long as he can be happy and fulfilled. Nick describes Gatsby as the most hopeful man he'd ever encountered, and this is true--Gatsby is brimming with hope in a false ideal, a belief in the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, a constant "go" as he chases after a ghostly dream. The American mantras of "believe in yourself" and "follow your heart" are mottos Gatsby would frame on the walls of his mansion, just so long as Daisy liked them too.
At their core, when we unearth their values and ethos, the Roaring '20s and the 21st century aren't so very different. The Great Gatsby is great because Gatsby never truly left us. The American dream is alive and well.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”