Review: The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

“I think he got it just right”

                                      F. Scott Fitzgerald’s granddaughter

Fresh from viewing the dazzling, 3D kaleidoscope, that is Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, it is imperative that my disbelief at reviewers, who have castigated or had mixed feelings about the film, is written down. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is quite perfect and a faithful rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, themes and more importantly, the zeitgeist he helped create, or at least revealed, to several generations of readers.

Seeing a dismal score of 51% at Rotten Tomatoes and 54% at Metacritic simply defies comprehension but one can draw solace, as I am certain Luhrmann does, by reading a little of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experience on release of his novel in 1925. The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and only sold 20,000 copies. Even the electronic version of the novel, at this public bookshelf, only receives three and half stars from over a thousand reviewers. That’s tough reviewing by any standards. One major contrast with the reception Fitzgerald received is that there is zero chance Luhrmann, despite the reviews, will have make anything other than a fortune at the box-office.

Luhrmann has taken an 18th century form and made it new. Previously, he adapted a Shakespearean play and, without writing a new line of dialogue, made it fresh for a contemporary audience. He has done so again with Gatsby, his most important film since Romeo and Juliet (and a kind of redemption for the awful, unbelievable box-office success, that was Australia).

Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies. Fitzgerald’s illusions were not very different from Gatsby’s, but his illusionless book resists destruction even from the most aggressive and powerful despoilers.          David Denby

The above quote from a well-known film reviewer (I’ve read his tome on ‘Great Books’) makes me think about one of the major themes in Gatsby and most oft-quoted lines:

“Can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can!”

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that‘s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Gatsby is wrong, as are many of the reviewers who yearn for a more faithful rendition of the novel. One cannot repeat the past, and any adaptation is unable to do so too. Shakespeare plundered stories already told and made them new, as does Luhrmann, who has always journeys towards cinematic green lights; the past is not repeated but remembered afresh.

 Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gatsby_1925_jacket.gif

Baz Luhrmann, along with Quentin Tarantino, is able to communicate the highest levels of excitement to cinema audiences, making them truly experience, vicariously, the hedonism of the characters living the scene being viewed. His films provide the viewer with a cinematic high as close to a ‘feely’ as one is likely to experience. In the case of this most recent film one feels Gatsby’s, or is that America’s hope, as the film parades the paradox that is the American Dream on a HDR-like canvas. Lurhmann’s ability to take the viewer along for the ride is what excites audiences. We get drunk, for the second time in our lives, with Nick Carraway, Myrtle and her sister at Tom Buchanan’s place. Not many directors can do this.

Luhrmann’s Gatsby is edited cleverly to communicate many of Fitzgerald’s themes. Often, text from the novel appears at crucial junctures, making clever use of the 3D technology to illuminate an 18th century form. Of course, the parties at Gatsby’s are thrilling and Luhrmann splashes the champagne and stars from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pages out of the 3D screen into the cinema:

THERE was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains.

The film is quite perfect. The ensemble cast convincingly bringing Fitzgerald’s characters to the screen in a way that many fans of the novel will mentally tick with approval. Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Gatsby (Leonardo di Caprio) are particularly good. The sets, costumes and cinematography are of the highest quality but the music, one of Luhrmann’s signatures as a director, is just superb. I made the mistake of listening to the soundtrack before watching the film and recommend you have the experience of enjoying without this kind of previewing, which does lessen the impact.

One wonders if Australians share the American love of this story from the 1920s or see the central character in the same way? The dirt poor Gatsby, through ambition and disregard of societal regulations, drags himself from poverty, makes a fortune in a dubious manner, spends it on love, only to be shot. It is a uniquely American story, or maybe one that gangsters, world-wide, can relate too.

Luhrmann’s genius is that we see the paradox that is Gatsby and we like him all the same.

What’s your response to Luhrmann’s adaptation of Gatsby?

 

Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Matthew Allard: http://flickr.com/photos/faceinthecrowd/5022864291/

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The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

10 Comments

  1. carlaleeb:

    I can tell you my response to your review …I now want to see Lurhmann’s production twice as much as I already did ! .Thanks Darcy, loved this :)

  2. Renee Gilbert:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself! I loved the film!!

  3. Denise Lombardo:

    Thanks for your review, Darcy – I have tickets to a viewing of the new one on the 12th – and have had mixed feelings, given how much I love Fitzgerald’s prose and the original film…but your review makes me quite excited to immerse myself in Luhrmann’s vision/version. WIll let you know what I think after seeing it, but can’t wait now!

  4. Troy:

    A great review! I can’t wait to see it. I read the novel last year, but I will read it again before seeing the film.

  5. Russ:

    I saw the film on the weekend. It was stunning to look and the acting was first class.

    The pivotal scene near the later part of the film where the ensemble cast gather at a hotel on an extremely hot day is electrifying acting of the highest order and di Caprio’s performance is nothing short of astonishing!

    I thoroughly recommend this film.

  6. Anna Melbourne:

    Australians have a soft spot for Baz, tracking his career since Strictly Ballroom we faithfully see his films regardless of merit but I think he nailed it with this film. I have seen the film twice and I enjoyed it more the second time.

    I love this book. I first read it at 15 and now rereading it 30 years later, I see a different text through the lense of experience and time and felt Baz did an excellent job immersing the viewer into the depths and the weight of unfulfilled ambition. But sumptuously.

    I might add that i haven’t enjoyed a Dicaprio performance so much since Romeo and Juliet. Brilliant.

  7. Lurhman’s films are generally triumphs over style over substance. I could not stomach Romeo and Juliet for example, I thought long and hard before deciding to watch the TGG and although I liked it, I’m still not a Lurhman fan. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is a genius.

    • Darcy Moore:

      Oh David, BL’s ‘R&J’ would surely have WS applauding I’m sure and indeed, even the director would acknowledge the preeminence of style as his intention! ;)

  8. Michelle Kasparian:

    Hi Darcy, this is review raises many good aspects about the new Gatsby film. However, like a lot of others I have problems with the film that hindered me from really enjoying it. My two main issues were:

    1. Turning Modernism into an aesthetic rather than a driving force of the film. Gatsby is an exemplar of a Modernist text: the use of first person, the trauma and tension between old and new, the exploration and affect of WW1 on societies, their people and their soldiers. The film is beautiful with all the art nouveau and 20s aestethic, but it misses what was underneath all the prettines: an exploration of a changing world no one understood, filled with a pain no one could articulate or verbalise.

    2. The lack of gaps and silences. In my opinion Fitzgerald’s power as a writer lay in his abilty to communicate so much through silences and what is not said. I feel Lurhmann did not understand this at all and opted for stating subtext on an almost soap-opera level of melodrama.

    So that’s my two cents on the issue. I feel Lurhmann gets caught up in the “style over substance” with many of his movies.

    • Darcy Moore:

      Thanks Michelle. I think Lurhmann is more interested in the text than the movement and has been very faithful to the spirit, substance and style of the novel. You will appreciate the irony, when reading this brief excerpt from HL Mencken’s 1925 review, that emphasises Fitzgerald’s superficiality and lack of depth:

      “This story is obviously unimportant, and though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false; it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes — often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.

      What gives the story distinction is something quite different from the management of the action or the handling of the characters; it is the charm and beauty of the writing. In Fitzgerald‘s first days it seemed almost unimaginable that he could ever show such qualities. His writing, then, was extraordinarily slipshod — at times almost illiterate. He seemed to be devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words. He could see people clearly and he could devise capital situations, but as writer qua writer he was apparently little more than a bright college boy.

      It is vastly to Fitzgerald‘s credit that he appears to have taken their caveats seriously and pondered them to good effect. In The Great Gatsby the highly agreeable fruits of that pondering are visible. The story, for all its basic triviality, has a fine texture, a careful and brilliant finish. The obvious phrase is simply not in it. The sentences roll along smoothly, sparklingly, variously. There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort. It is a quite new Fitzgerald who emerges from this little book and the qualities that he shows are dignified and solid. This Side of Paradise, after all, might have been merely a lucky accident. But The Great Gatsby, a far inferior story at bottom, is plainly the product of a sound and stable talent, conjured into being by hard work.”

      Mencken clearly has it wrong. ;)

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