Jay Gatsby is one of those mysterious figures who, as they become revealed to us, reveal something about us. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Jay Gatsby, delivers a performance that stays true to the myth of the man while allowing us to pick apart the myths that are his bane. Despite the nuance and strength of DiCaprio’s performance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is far bigger than just the story of a man and DiCaprio can only take the movie so far.
The story goes like this: Jay Gatsby was poor when he met and fell in love with the Louisville debutante Daisy Fay (Carey Mulligan). While Gatsby was trying to climb the socio/economic ladder, old money Tom Buchanan (Joel Egerton) swooped in and stole Daisy away. Gatsby has made his fortune; now that he is worthy of Daisy’s love, he is ready to pick up from where they left off. Everything Gatsby does including the wild parties at his mansion every weekend are all geared towards getting Daisy’s attention. What could possibly go wrong? The story is told through the eyes of Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who becomes Gatsby’s go-between in rekindling the relationship with Daisy. Through Nick’s eyes we see the whole picture.
If you have seen the previews for the film (and you have) you have undoubtedly seen shots of the outrageous parties that make Gatsby a legend. While the outstanding dancing and music is amazing, it doesn’t feel like decadence — it feels like hard work and endless practice. The Broadway-style song & dance aren’t helped by the peripatetic camera-work. Combined it is all too much, which diminishes the power of what is supposed to be the best part of the movie.
In adapting the novel, director Baz Luhrman has made some controversial choices. He tries to keep the heavy writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald with copious amounts of narration. With such famous prose at the beginning and end of the film, narration was probably inevitable (and made even more inevitable by casting Mr. wide-eyed moralist himself Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway). But film is a visual medium, and when you are adapting a book you have to show, not tell. The narration in the middle of the film is an interruption and Tobey Maguire is a twerp.
I could live with all of that, but it is Luhrman’s interpretation that really turned me off. I just reread the Great Gatsby again last week. Among my many disappointments, the biggest is the diminished importance of the Jordan Baker character. It is made even more disappointing because the sexy, complicated performance by Elizabeth Debicki that left me wanting more. Old friends with Daisy back in the Louisville days; Jordan didn’t marry into the elite strata. In the novel, she cheated and lied her way to the top of professional golf circuit only to get caught and become disgraced. As the embodiment of the different set of rules that apply to the rich and powerful, she gives a defense of recklessness as chilling and memorable as Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal “Let them eat cake.” Unforgivably, none of this is included in the film.
The parallels, the links, the way it is woven together are what makes The Great Gatsby, well, great. It doesn’t just hold up a mirror to us as individuals, it holds up a mirror for an entire era, an entire country. You don’t have to get into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s impasto symbolism to understand that he is writing about what is all around us — still around us today.
Would I recommend seeing Gatsby? Yeah, I would recommend it. It is a big movie with a $127 million budget that people are going to have an opinion about (but I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in 3D, where it looks like a cartoon).
In the novel, the Great Gatsby, nothing is what it seems; in the film by Baz Luhrman, everything is exactly what it seems. The creativity and inventiveness Luhrman displayed in his earlier hits, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, has been drown out in a true stroke of irony, by money and ambition.