I just went and saw The Great Gatsby in theaters over the weekend (not in 3D, mind you—although I imagine it actually would be worth the extra money, if that kind of thing doesn’t make you nauseous (like it does my wife, whom I was with)), and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
My hopes weren’t especially high for a few reasons:
- Toby Maguire (need I say more?)
- It seemed a bit bizarre to me, overstated in a way contrary to the understated tone of Fitzgerald’s novel
- That being said… I’m actually not a huge fan of the book (alack!—literary sacrilege!). I don’t hate it, but I was not enthralled reading it.
But I was intrigued. I was intrigued by director Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top-seeming cinematic interpretation. I was intrigued by his stylized (bordering on caricaturized) nouveau-riche decadence of the Roaring ‘20s; intrigued by the bright, stunning, hyper-visual reinvention of a book I felt was (frankly) slightly boring; I was intrigued by the cast (Maguire notwithstanding)—especially DiCaprio as Gatsby.
Over-the-top? Stylized? Hyper-visual? Yes, all of that and more—but in all the right ways. It took me at least fifteen minutes (maybe longer) to adjust to the overstimulated pulse of Luhrmann’s version of Fitzgerald’s vision of New York in the Twenties, but once I was there, I was there. In the film, everything is more. Everything is newer, faster, flashier, more fun, more glamorous, more abundant than I could handle (almost). More money, more booze, more dancing, more cars, more sex—everything in excess—good and bad. So while the ‘good’ seems so good, the bad is downright deplorable. Arrogance, avarice, adultery. Drunkenness, debauchery, deceit. Everything is cheaper, dirtier, darker, sadder, seedier, sleazier, more secretive, more seductive, more superficial. So happy yet so empty. So lively, and yet devoid of life.
The whole arc of the film is (almost literally) bipolar in that way. Nick Carraway (protagonist, narrator, and audience’s entry into this world—played by Maguire) arrives in New York with hopes and dreams, intrigued and allured by the city’s promise of possibility, intrigued and allured, most of all, by his reclusive yet garishly hospitable neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who throws extravagant, carnivalesque parties (lavish enough to make the King of Siam’s jaw drop) every weekend, to which nearly all of New York comes in droves, without invitation, indulging in Gatsby’s excessive generosity (or generous excess), and then they leave. If you want a small taste of how these parties are depicted in the film, watch the beginning of the trailer, but trust me, they’re even grander and crazier.
So the story begins in this manic upswing, taking the characters (and the audience with them) on this vain, star-striving lunge up toward possibility, toward dreams, toward hope—perhaps expectation is the word for it. They grin because they’re on the ride of their lives, because all they could want and more is just within their grasp, because they are, or are about to become (they think), actually happy. Carraway is living a life he never dreamed possible in the Midwest; Gatsby is nearly finished recreating his past by retrieving Daisy, the girl he loved and lost, who is now married to harsh, wealthy man, Tom Buchannan, of less ambiguous origin, but who steals away regularly on trysts with different mistresses.
But there’s a flatness to this grin, a thin, worn, fragility to their lives and happiness. It isn’t a sincere smile at all, but merely the face being pulled back by the downward force of gravity (which will eventually win out) as they skyrocket into the air. And, as with a bipolar personality, after a prolonged period of high-as-possible highs, the trajectory of the film begins to turn, and the inevitable descent into low-as-possible lows is actualized. Plunging into despair, loneliness, and violence, the film enters a depressive state as dreams are crushed, love is thwarted, and lives are taken—intentionally and unintentionally.
Although F. Scott Fitzgerald would’ve known nothing of this disorder, and perhaps didn’t intend for anything of the kind, I find it very interesting that Baz Luhrmann seemed to paint Jay Gatsby as (at least suspiciously) bipolar. His grandiose, lavish lifestyle, his requirement for sensationalism and high stimulation, his manic but infectious optimism and seemingly insurmountable imagination which one might call delusions of grandeur, all attempting to deny his isolation, loneliness, and desperation, resting so haphazardly at a peak for which only time was needed to tip him into deep depression.
Another thing that was unexpected but I thought was incredibly well done, was the way Luhrmann contemporized the story without actually contemporizing it. Visually, first of all, the film was shot in 3D (which, again, I did not see, but would’ve liked to), which is obviously a very modern convention of cinema. But, dimensions aside, it was shot in such a way that it gave a contemporary lens to Fitzgerald’s era of American history without removing his story from the time in which it was written. It would have been all too easy to try to re-set The Great Gatsby in a modern context, to rewrite the story as a 21st-century narrative, but Luhrmann didn’t do that. Instead he stylized the conventions of the Twenties by borderline-exaggerating them in an almost-a-century-removed way so that they were on the one hand not always literally accurate of the times, but on the other hand aesthetically symbolic of the times.
This juxtaposing of our world (America circa 2013) with Fitzgerald’s world (America circa 1922) was done most profoundly by Luhrmann’s excellent utilization of music. It’s probably the second-best film soundtrack I’ve ever heard—I’m partial (probably biased, actually) to the Cohen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack as number one. Luhrmann paralleled the culture of present-day America with the culture of post-World War I America by actually infusing the pop and hip-hop of today into the jazz, swing, and big band of the Twenties. Beyonce with Jay-Z, Florence + The Machine and Lana Del Rey, Gotye and Jack White all play a role in illustrating musically the party-crazed, thrill-seeking, manic-depressive personality of the 1920s. Live fast and die young. How different is that from our culture’s mindset today?
[Brief tirade… Think of movies that our generation has created and consumed over the last ten years: Knocked Up, Project X, The Hangover Trilogy (the fact alone that they’ve made a trilogy of this storyline should say something in itself about what our culture values). Think of the music playing on the radio: all pop music is club music now. Every song is a party soundtrack. Think of any song in the last ten years by The Black Eyed Peas, Fun, Maroon 5, Rihanna, Kesha (the fact that someone as incredulously talentless as Kesha is successful or even listened to when she talks is proof enough that our culture overvalues alcohol, sex, and stupidity). …end of tirade.]
As critical as that last part was, I mean it as a well-executed point of observation on Baz Luhrmann’s part. I could not stop thinking at any point when music was playing, “This is now. This is a perfect parallel of today.”
Some quick, unrelated things to wrap up abruptly:
- Leonardo DiCaprio was a profoundly compelling Jay Gatsby.
- Toby Maguire was a surprisingly well-suited Nick Carraway.
- Another intriguing aspect of the movie was the repeated juxtaposition of the classism created by wealth and the classism created by race. The disparateness of ‘black and white’ was often paralleled to the disparateness of ‘rich and poor.’
- I appreciated the film’s surprising adeptness for staying true to the text while also casting an unprecedentedly unique vision.