The Great Gatsby: A review

It’s terrific.  Let me get that out of the way; it’s a wonderful movie. The new Baz Luhrman movie, The Great Gatsby is deeply moving and powerful, not just Moulin Rouge set in Jazz Age New York.

As I watched the closing credits, I overheard this conversation from a woman seated behind me.  She said, “It was so stupid.  They didn’t have rap music back a hundred years ago or whatever.  And they shoulda got a good actor to play that Gatsby guy.  Like, I don’t know, Shia LaBeouf.”

There’s buzz about this film, and it’s mostly not good. 48% on Rotten Tomatoes. But I’ve read a lot of the negative reviews, and consider them about as insightful as the comments of the Shia LaBeouf lady. I’ve seen Gatsby compared to the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra for example. Seen it touted as a classic Hollywood disaster.  I can only say that they didn’t see the same movie I saw last night.

The main complaint I’ve heard is one you often hear about Baz Luhrman films: all style, no substance. Yes, he can do excess, he can do the big musical dance number, with writhing bodies and swooping cameras and garish lighting.  But can he tell a story, can he deliver believable human characters and make us care about them.

I suppose it’s fair to say that if you liked Moulin Rouge, you probably will like Gatsby, and if you hated Moulin Rouge you won’t much like Gatsby.  And yes, I really loved Moulin Rouge.  But Moulin Rouge is way more over-the-top than Gatsby.  What I don’t understand is critics who found Gatsby empty, who complain that they didn’t feel anything at the end.  I don’t mind admitting; I was a puddle.  I wept at the end.

And so many reviewers also insist that Luhrman’s not true to the spirit of the novel.  The Great Gatsby, they insist, is too important and powerful a novel to be given the Baz Luhrman treatment.  To which I would say this: we’ve seen a reverential Great Gatsby.  It had Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and was a movie so listless it just died.  F. Scott Fitzgerald was about energy.  His novel moves with the orgiastic excess of the Jazz Age.  The nightmarish party sequences Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) wanders through, lost and bewildered and excited and fascinated and titillated: pure Fitzgerald.

And why not use Jay-Z’s music there?  Why not make that connection aurally explicit, between the gin-fueled superabundance of the Jazz Age, and the coke-fueled excess of party scenes today?  Jay-Z’s a producer on the film, so why not let his rap comment on Nick’s self-destruction?

And those early party scenes are crucial, as establishing shots for what will come next.  But what I admire about the movie is, in fact, its restraint.  Luhrman clearly loves this great novel, and understands that at its heart, it’s basically a deeply tragic love story.

And that’s why Leonardo DiCaprio is so perfect as Jay Gatsby.  He can play Gatsby’s confidence, his quiet, easy off-hand competence.  But he also gives us layers, the insecurity that underlies the confidence, and the moral compromises that formed him.  When Nick says to him, ‘you can’t re-create the past,’ he responds, in one of the novel and film’s classic lines, ‘of course you can!’  But Gatsby isn’t actually re-creating the past.  He’s burying it.  He’s inventing an entirely new past, as he reinvents himself.

The film wouldn’t work without an actress capable of meeting DiCaprio’s brilliance in the role, and with Carey Mulligan, as Daisy Buchanan, Luhrman shows his gift for pitch-perfect casting.  She’s luminously vulnerable in the role. Daisy’s motivations are complex, both in the novel and the film.  It’s not as simple as leaving her cheating husband for the love of her life.  Mulligan gets it. The major dramatic question, of course, is ‘will Daisy leave her husband and marry Gatsby.’  And Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is splendidly vile.  Why wouldn’t she want to leave him? Because it’s not that easy.

It’s a movie about love, in all its variety.  There’s Gatsby’s (how to describe it?) confident desperation, self-assured neediness.  It’s not enough that Daisy declare her love for him.  She has to add something; publicly state that she has never loved Tom.  We wonder why she doesn’t just say it. But she knows things about Gatsby’s actual past.  Where did his money come from?  Will she be safe with a man whose fortune is built on criminality?

And when Tom (who is thuggish, but by no means unintelligent) goads Gatsby enough, we see that undercurrent of violence beneath Gatsby’s urbane exterior, and she’s frightened again.  (It’s DiCaprio’s finest moment, in a superb performance).  There’s Daisy’s love, confused and vulnerable, torn between her philandering husband and the various Gatsbys that reveal themselves. There’s Tom Buchanan’s love, brutal and loathsome, but maybe more real that Gatsby’s fantastic history.  There’s the elemental, inchoate, inarticulate, desperate love of George Wilson (the ever amazing Jason Clarke), married to the cutie-patootie party girl Myrtle (Isla Fisher), whose sordid affair with Tom Buchanan ends in such terrible tragedy.  And finally, there’s the love Nick Carroway has for Gatsby. In a lot of ways, it’s the most honest love in the whole movie, the masculine, straight friendship between Gatsby (who finally finds, in Nick, the one friend he can genuinely trust), and Nick, who sees in Jay Gatsby everything he wants to become.

It’s an intoxicating movie, not just because of Baz Luhrman’s dab hand with cinematic excess, but because, half-way through, he trusts these marvelous actors and that marvelous story and takes the time to let all the complicated emotions and competing objectives play themselves out.

And, yes, The Great Gatsby is also a political novel, with Gatsby as the living embodiment of the American Dream, with all the compromises and short cuts and moral ambiguity that implies.  It’s about the ultimate American success story, and the dark side of that success.  The politics aren’t front-and-center (in the novel or the film), but class issues and race issues remain in the background, quietly festering.

Anyway, it’s a brilliant movie.  Afterwards, my wife and I went out for ice cream with some friends, including their teenaged daughters.  They loved it too.  So, really, this is one where it might be best to ignore the critics. (Except, you know, me.)  It’s a remarkable film.


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