I feel like most people’s ability to enjoy The Great Gatsby will depend on how they respond to Baz Luhrmann’s style as a director. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I’m a huge Luhrmann fan (I even loved Australia), and I think he was the perfect choice to direct the first truly great adaptation of The Great Gatsby. He manages to capture the feeling of the book and to make the story compelling in a way that the last attempt at adapting the book, in 1974, failed to do, despite its stellar cast.
Most people are probably familiar with the story, from either high-school or middle-school English classes. It’s 1922 and Nick Carraway, a recent graduate from Yale, rents a small house on Long Island in the fictional neighborhood of West Egg. His house sits next door to the mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, who throws extravagant nightly parties attended by enormous throngs of people. Across the bay in East Egg lives Nick’s cousin Daisy, her husband Tom (Nick’s Yale buddy) and their daughter. Nick sells bonds in the city and spends his free time socializing with Tom, Daisy and Daisy’s friend Jordan at their house, or riding into town with Tom and his mistress, Myrtle, for afternoons of debauchery in an apartment they keep rented for just such a purpose.
Everything changes when Nick gets an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties. The Great Gatsby is a story of lost love and lost time, and even one of hopefulness, but it’s not a happy story. F. Scott Fitzgerald crafted a story of the decadence of the rich during the jazz age, and their shallow lack of concern for life’s consequences. The novel explored the excesses of the time and the film does a masterful job of relating those feelings to audiences. Luhrmann’s sweeping camera moves combine with the impressive sets, gorgeous costumes and glittery design to highlight the decadence of 1920’s New York. He sets the film to modern music (much of it from the trailers for the film), giving the parties a throbbing beat that never feels out of place, heightening the emotion of the scenes.
The cast all shine in their roles, bringing life to the characters in a way that felt more immediate and real than it did when I last read the book. Leonardo DiCaprio, in particular, is in top form, giving Gatsby a sense of despair combined with an irrepressible hope. He’s a man with a dream, and it’s easy to see why he inspires Nick, despite his faults. Tobey MaGuire make for a convincing wide-eyed Nick, a young man escaping from his sheltered bubble for the first time and thrust into a wilder world than he could have imagined. Carey Mulligan gives Daisy a weariness with the world that makes her relatable despite her faults, and Joel Edgerton’s Tom simmers and boils whenever he’s onscreen.
The film’s writers stay true to the book, using its dialogue whenever possible. The only big departure is a narrative choice, opening the film with Nick in a sanitorium, recalling and writing down his experiences with Gatsby. It allows Nick to use much of Fitzgerald’s narration, and Luhrmann lets his words fly from Nick’s typewriter to the screen, hanging over the film much as the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s disembodied eyes watch over the Valley of Ashes. All of the memorable images are there, from Gatsby’s yellow custom car to the optometrist’s billboard to the flashing green light, and it takes a visual director like Luhrmann to give them their due.
The Great Gatsby is a swirling, visual treat (particularly in 3D), but it’s not a happy movie. It has harsh things to say about wealth, money, power and the callousness of humanity, all of which comes straight from Fitzgerald. While many reviewers may not agree with me, I feel like this new version of the story is a perfect marriage of director, cast and source material. Perhaps the best way to know for sure is just to see it for yourself and decide. As Nick Carraway says, “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.”