The Great Gatsby: “Great” or Merely “Good”?

Published on May 11th, 2013

It goes without saying that the anticipation that has led up to Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby has made it somewhat impossible to view with total objectivity. And, considering the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel is still not dated enough to be repackaged for modern audiences, the movie comes across as more of a Hollywood gimmick than a meaningful re-creation of one of the most important works of the twentieth century. The inherent message of the novel already applies heavily to the current generation–what with our constant search for meaning through decadence and alcohol (though this might have been more resonant in the 1980s)–unlike Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo + Juliet, the modernization of which made a bit more sense.

Promotional poster for The Great Gatsby

Promotional poster for The Great Gatsby

Luhrmann’s reputation for a decadent, over the top aesthetic is naturally present in The Great Gatsby, though vaguely subdued considering the hedonistic depravity of the Flapper Era (I mean, Luhrmann could have at least played up the lesbianism of Jordan Baker). The buildup of our introduction to Jay Gatsby is perhaps one of the most notable aspects of the film, which is one element that isn’t as easily felt when reading the story. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, who usurps almost everyone with his acting skills in this particular movie), finds himself invited into the luxurious world of his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, who is just vanilla soft serve enough to play this role), who lives on the posher, older money side of Long Island. Her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton, who plays an asshole to perfection), comes from a privileged background that is evident in every facet of his and Daisy’s lifestyle. The first night Nick is invited over for dinner, he encounters Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), one of Daisy’s closest companions.

Carey Mulligan: Claire Danes part deux.

Carey Mulligan: Claire Danes part deux.

As Nick tells Jordan that he lives on West Egg, she mentions the name Gatsby and his legendary parties, to which Daisy famously remarks, “Gatsby? What Gatsby?” Nick is soon after invited to one of his parties with a handwritten invitation, a fact he likes to make a point of throughout the party until finally encountering the one and only Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, with that debonair, unmistakable look of his). Gatsby immediately strikes up a friendship with him, inviting him out the next day. Gatsby’s motives in getting closer to Nick become clear when Jordan informs him that he used to know Daisy five years ago before the war, and that everything he has done since then has been to gain her favor and recognition. Nick’s fascination with Gatsby only increases after finding this out, especially with the knowledge that Tom is having an affair with a low-brow woman named Myrtle (Isla Fisher, who proves that you can be in a chick-lit based movie like Confessions of a Shopaholic and a classic like The Great Gatsby).

Growing evermore sympathetic to the loneliness of Gatsby–in spite of having all that wealth–Nick helps him to ingratiate himself back into her life. The male camaraderie between them could easily be parodied on Saturday Night Live, but it seems, back then, that this sort of genuine, non-sexual affinity between men was actually possible (as with Fitzgerald and Hemingway). In any case, it is their rapport that is most interesting. Though, of course, the fatal love story between Gatsby and Daisy has its appeal, there are no smoke and mirrors between Nick and Gatsby, and it is the realest relationship that Gatsby has in his life.

Regardless of the lush, noticeable soundtrack that beats throughout the entire film (a scene on the Queensboro Bridge in which a car full of black men and women are dancing to “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” by Jay-Z is particularly memorable), the words–both on the screen at certain moments and in the screenplay–are what stand out the most in the film, which is mostly a testament to Fitzgerald. And then there’s that scene between Daisy and Gatsby that doubles as a Lana Del Rey video directed by Baz Luhrmann that also makes it stand out as well.

No matter what your devotion to or nonchalance about the novel may be, it has to be said that Baz Luhrmann did it a fair amount of stylized justice. Though it might not necessarily have been as faithful as the more boring, school-favored 1974 film version penned by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, a true artist is able to extrapolate the best parts of something and make them his own–like Warhol or Madonna. Even if it doesn’t exactly live up to the hype surrounding it, The Great Gatsby has allowed Luhrmann to do what he does best: Showcase the archetype of a tragic love story in all of its romanticized glory.

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