Gatsby, what Gatsby?
As the movie began, there was no telling where it was going. Unless, you know, you read the book in tenth grade like half of the English-speaking world did (or read a Sparknotes summary online like the other half)…but nonetheless, it was the film’s stylistic intelligence that was unpredictable. It had the cinematic masterpiece quality that Luhrmann has perfected through his theatrical musical films like Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, translated beautifully into an amalgamation of culture, sex, and hope that is The Great Gatsby.
The cinematography is pretty damn flawless, from the white-curtained introduction of Daisy Buchanan to the practiced presentation of Gatsby himself. The book was followed to a tee, for the most part, and translated shockingly well onscreen. The National Post called it “less a movie than an event,” and – without taking away from my respect and enjoyment of the film – that’s exactly right. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby over three years, from 1922-1925. Luhrmann has been working on his production for roughly five years now, and the world has been waiting.
Call it “computer-generated whoosh” if you must, but its looks are pretty fucking epic. And underneath all of that, the novel stands tall. Much of the dialogue comes straight from Fitzgerald in 1925, and while I could have done without the fluffy skywriting sequences from Carraway’s alcoholic future, it wasn’t a bad way to lay out the movie. While much of the opening half of the movie is rushed brilliance and forced flow, its crazy atmosphere sucks you in.
Carey Mulligan’s dewy, soft complexion and gentle stature set up Daisy perfectly. Last played by Mia Farrow in 1974, Daisy is one of those controversial characters that stirs up a lot of conflict. Luhrmann cites Daisy Buchanan as “a kind of social supernova; she’s so attractive and dazzling, and she makes you feel as if you’re the only person in the world… In everybody’s mind they have a Daisy Buchanan. It’s like Scarlett O’Hara, how touchy a subject that is. I think of Scarlett as being this precious child star who’s been a star all her life, and that’s true about Daisy.” Luhrmann calls the Gatsby-Daisy relationship “one of those chemically dangerous relationships,” and there’s no better way to put it.
During the (long) audition process for the role, Leo, the fountain of all modern wisdom, said “Daisy has got to be a kind of hothouse flower, something that Gatsby has never encountered before, such that he feels and obsession to protect her.” Carey Mulligan does just that. She enamours you with her innocence and docile geniality, and wraps you up in her creamy speech.
Her voice is a major part of her character, described in Fitzgerald’s novel as “low, thrilling,” “exhilarating,” full of “fluctuating, feverish warmth,” and “full of money.” Speaking of full of money, she’s also married to the talented and delicious Marcus Mumford.
Leo DiCaprio’s Gatsby was even better than I expected. He had perfect timing, an incredible measure of Gatsby’s delicate control and internal servitude, and was seriously fucking awesome. Granted, he’s pretty much got the world’s respect behind him before he even walks onscreen, but his Jay Gatz speaks for itself as well. You can feel the delusion, reminiscent of his tortured characters in Inception and Shutter Island, a balance of crazed obsession and classy-as-fuck confidence. Gatsby is a measured, detailed man of expectation, and DiCaprio is the same. He “burrows deep into the role, loosing the obsession at the heart of Fitzgerald’s tale; beneath Gatsby’s smooth exterior roil the same tightly wound furies that hounded DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator.
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about [Gatsby], some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability, which is dignified under the name of “creative temperament”- it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”
It had the grandeur that you expect from Luhrmann’s musical past, the expansive, wide-angle, 3-D takeover that brings the film to life. If you liked Moulin Rouge, you’ll likely enjoy TGG. Bright, vivacious, and never lacking in depth, the setting and lush atmosphere worked perfectly to set the scene. The introductions to Tom and Jordan felt observed and far-away, like you were watching a piece of theatre, rather than cinema. Luhrmann explains his decision to make the film in 3D in the May 2013 issue of Vogue. After seeing a screening of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, what struck him:
“…wasn’t that things come out of the screen, it was watching Grace Kelly move in space where the camera wasn’t moving. It was much more like the theater. It brought power to the performance. The actor was more in-control of the drama. The camera didn’t have to generate energy. It blew my mind… the real special effect in Gastby could be watching some of the finest actors in the world doing a ten-page scene in a room in the Plaza Hotel. That could be a visual effect.”
This was the first (and most epic) adaptation of Gatsby in several decades, and the book has often been dubbed “unfilmable.” Literature learned lessons from Gatsby, and continue to ’til this day. Film might be able to learn something too.
While the Jay-Z produced soundtrack may have taken some people out of the roaring Twenties zone they were in, I thought it was balanced perfectly. With big, power voices from Lana Del Rey, Florence, and Queen Bey, the power-pop side of the soundtrack shone. While “Young and Beautiful” might have finished the film as a slightly overused motif theme for Gaisy (looool), the jazzy mash-ups from Will.I.Am, Fergie, and Kid Koala kept it fresh and entertaining.
Leo was sublime, and Mulligan balanced beauty and carelessness as only Daisy Buchanan can. Jay and Daisy were casted to perfection, but I still can’t help but feel awkward about Tobey Maguire. Maybe it’s because even in 3-D, he has no visible lips. Maybe it’s because he’s Peter Parker. Either way, it took me out of the scene and I felt genuinely uncomfortable with his Carraway at parts. He just didn’t fit.
“Baz felt very strongly that the book’s nature was quintessentially modern, that the twenties was the time when everybody came to grips with the twentieth century,” said his wife, Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin. Luhrmann takes that modernity to a new level with this visually-laden piece of work, and it deserves some respect. Five years, people. That’s time for like five babies. Or six. Or something.
A sick soundtrack, incredibly strong performances, and a decent rendition of a great American novel on the big screen… just go see it. It’s fancy and fun and exciting; you know you’re curious. 3-D or not, I seriously recommend catching this green light before it goes out.