THE GREAT GATSBY There is no movie I have been more prepared to dislike than this one. How dare some Aussie come over here and tell us about the meaning of one of the great works of American literature. Especially this Aussie, Baz Luhrmann, who is known to overload, over-hype and overcook his theatrical product into a glittery miasma of small meaning and little consequence. (i.e. Moulin Rouge)
But I was wrong.
Jay Gatsby has achieved success in a fashion beyond most imaginations, excepting his own. In true Horatio Alger tradition he has worked hard to improve himself, but when his past creeps up on him and threatens his well crafted self image, he suavely and effortlessly changes it, his past, and he inhabits the change until it becomes the reality. He is the self made American man in every way. He is the American success myth both personified and perverted.
Unlike Alger's heroes, he has not followed the straight and narrow. He has acquired his fabulous wealth through bootlegging and stock swindles.
This belief, that he can change his past, to correct it as it were, has given him a veneer of respectability that has put him in good stead with his underworld connections. But it is not for them that Gatsby has made this remarkable metamorphosis. No, he did everything, and I mean everything, for the love of a woman.
Daisy was Gatsby's great love, but he lost her, and now in one final herculean effort he is going to correct his past this one last time. He is going to win her back and make things as they should have been.
Leo DeCaprio is the only actor of this generation that could play Gatsby, just as Robert Redford could only play Gatsby the previous generation. Redford's Gatsby seemed reticent and insecure about his past; regretful that he must live a lie in order to accomplish his goal. DeCaprio's Gatsby is forceful, decisive; he is a determined man of significant accomplishment and great ability. He has a plan and he is going to execute it and as far as he is concerned, for all the right reasons. For myself, it is DeCaprio's best and most powerful performance.
This decision (both DeCaprio's and Luhrmann's) to take Gatsby down from some ethereal literary icon into a flesh and blood human being gives the movie an intensity that the 1974 version and most of the literary criticism of the book that I have ever read, never perceived. This is not a shining white knight rescuing a damsel in distress; this is a bare knuckles brawl for the hand of Daisy, and she is going to have to choose.
Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) is Gatsby's antagonist. He and Daisy were married when Daisy could no longer wait for Gatsby to prove himself worthy of her. Tom is as rich, maybe even richer than Gatsby, but his money is old, he is an aristocrat with a deep sense of entitlement. He has status and wealth because he's supposed to have status and wealth, and he's not about to give up all that, and certainly not his wife, to this new money usurper Gatsby, without a fight.
Bruce Dern played Tom as a kind of loopy (Dern's specialty) racial conspiracy nut, but Edgerton gives Tom a much harder edge. When Tom espouses his vile racial philosophies one might think that someday he might actually do something about it.
Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is a tough role. For all the time that Gatsby spends trying to prove he is good enough for Daisy, the audience, for the book or the film, is led down the path that she is not good enough for him. Mia Farrow played Daisy as an airhead and a dingbat, but Mulligan gives Daisy a bit more spine, and fashions a character that has a pretty good idea where her self-interests lay.
Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearse stay pretty close to the text with a few additions and devices, most notably, to those of us who read the book, know that it is Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire) who tells the story, and is a firsthand witness to all the events, but we never knew from where he tells the story. Luhrmann tells us it is from a sanitarium where Nick is drying out from excessive alcoholism.
As for Luhrmann's reputation for excess: Well, he certainly visualizes Gatsby's parties as excess, but they are supposed to be excessive, excessive materialism is part of the point of the story. There are times when Luhrmann can't resist himself and feels the compulsion to punctuate matters with some visual flourish, but I did not find it too distracting. His decision to go 3D however, I think was wise. The characters seem to come out of the screen and get next to you. You get to know them personally, and after all this is a very personal story.
I think this story has survived the test of time so well because it is basically a love story. Whatever the viewers or readers opinion of the characters are, Gatsby and Daisy do love each other, but Fitzgerald was not interested in boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl and they all live happily ever after. Where Fitzgerald reached his own aspiration of creating high art is in wondering if living happily ever after is even possible in an age of class consciousness, even class warfare, that is driven by a compulsive materialism in a world changing so fast that we can't even formulate the question before we have to come up with an answer. Luhrmann stays true to these themes and displays an avid curiosity about them himself.
What he has created is a work of art that stands very well on its own.
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