I’m afraid I haven’t been a very good host, old sport. You see, I’m Gatsby.
Let’s get this out of the way right away: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is not as good as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Like any product of an average public high school in America, Fitzgerald’s novel was standard fare in my sophomore year English class. It, along with Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, taught me the vibrant debates literary analysis can spark – the symbolism, the parity with modern day themes, the impact of specific word choice.
Luhrmann’s adaptation can’t – and shouldn’t – be taken as any replacement of Fitzgerald’s taut, complex, devastatingly wonderful novel. Perhaps it’s more an interpretation, then. As A.O. Scott started his New York Times review:
The best way to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s big and noisy new version of “The Great Gatsby” … is to put aside whatever literary agenda you are tempted to bring with you.
Once you’ve left that baggage at the door, you’re treated to one of the best cinematic romps of the year to date. No one can do splashy, over the top and decadent like Lurhmann, and he is spot on here. The world he creates – and it’s clearly created, as the tableaus are heavily CGI, like your grandparent’s black and white pictures painted in with pinks and teals and yellows, looking alive but clearly doctored – is large and frenetic and a shot of adrenaline in the arm. Enveloped in this world, the cast of characters quickly and easily pulls you into their life of excess. Gatsby is cast essentially perfectly, DiCaprio’s title role equal parts deceptively arrogant and yet fumbling through an ingrained insecurity he can’t shake; Maguire kicks up his Carraway with the right amount of emotional investment at the right times; Mulligan’s Daisy is appropriately waif-like and absent from her real life, and easily retreats back into it when her dalliances conclude to devastating results.
What I appreciate most about Luhrmann’s vision – what completely won me over from beginning to end, had me sitting forward in my chair, had my eyes glued to every vibrant frame – is how the man owns his style. He is the ring-leader of a cinematic circus; you need only look to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge to understand what potential the helmer sees when he’s developing a new title, what he envisions for the final product. Like Wes Anderson’s quirkiness, Sofia Coppola’s sparsity, or Woody Allen’s…well, being Woody Allen, you know what you’re gonna get going into it.
Several people, average moviegoers and critics alike, have mentioned they’re not fond of specific creative choices, including the inclusion of anachronistic music and some potentially less-than-timely costume choices (hello, Mertyl’s cleavage). I say, good on ya, Baz. I love the juxtaposition. I love that he’s taken a 90-year-old book and updated the story to a framework modern audiences will sink their teeth into. Yes, I gasped at hearing the HOVA melody at first, but then I giggled about it. The scene, Gatsby and Carraway speeding into New York, sees them passing a car full of revelers, the girls dripping with fringe and standing up in the car dancing to Jay-Z. In a moves-so-fast-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it move, they even work in a quick sample of Alicia Keys from Empire State of Mind as the 1922 NYC skyline comes into view. It’s so rich you can practically taste it. But Luhrmann isn’t just plopping modern day pop-culture references in it to keep things interesting. For Beyonce’s cover of Back to Black, we also get Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave. A perfectly played balancing act.