After two hours of spinning, whooshing, zooming and plummeting, Baz Luhrmann’s rendition of The Great Gatsby leaves the viewer alone in a room with a depressed man and his pen. All of the dazzling, ethereal, and ostentatious scenes culminate in one colossally empty moment that leaves the viewer as dazed and depressed as narrator Nick Caraway was after the trajectory of his journey through the entrails of 1920’s New York hedonism.
We all go to the movies to see something we have never seen before, even if we’ve watched a thousand films, and this rendition of Fitzgerald’s timeless work was the most refreshing, earnest, and aesthetically appealing book-based film I have ever watched. In it, Luhrmann fulfills the two impossible goals of dazzling the sensational movie watcher, whose highest priority is special effects, and of deeply satisfying those of us who walked into the theater cringing in fear that a movie director’s interpretation of one of our most cherished books would forever ruin the scenes that are so meaningfully embedded in our imagination.
Luhrmann did what I have never seen done before. In a blend of perfectly-inserted narration and beautiful acting, he not only brought to life an iconic American book without changing a single line, but paid the highest honor to Fitzgerald by immaculately capturing the potent but elusive tone of every scene in the book.
Gatsby is one of those books that punches you in the gut over and over again with scenes that, although a little fantastical and over-the-top, are somehow achingly real and bursting with nostalgia. The tone of the book is painfully raw, and yet each individual scene seems to float in an ethereal realm that verges on being other-worldly and that, through its very other-worldliness conveys something so true and potent about human nature that the reader is left with the feeling that he or she has just experienced a profound but unutterable truth.
The challenge of bringing this kind of nuanced writing to the screen without taking interpretational liberties, while still providing a dazzling visual aesthetic, is one that I have never seen done so aptly.
Although many critics have pointed out the glaring disconnect between the movie’s strict adherence to Fitzgerald’s script and the liberties that Luhrmann took by infusing the film with modern music, Luhrmann’s commitment to tone remains irreprehensible. By creating a medley of 1920’s jazz and modern-day electronic music, Luhrmann was able to capture, for a modern viewer, the thrill and opulence of the roaring 20’s in a way that simply recreating scenarios from the 1920’s could not.
From the perfect smirk and boyish demeanor of Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby), to the bland awkwardness of Toby Maguire (Nick), to the scratchy-voiced, girlish sexuality of Carey Mulligan (Daisy) through his or her mannerisms alone, each character perfectly satisfied, and even clarified, what I had vaguely envisioned when I first read Fitzgerald’s book.
If you are not deeply in love with Fitzgerald’s book, or haven’t read it, this film might seem like a bit of a sappy melodrama with a lot glitter, confetti and hopelessness.
But for those of you who find the story of Gatsby to be heart-wrenching in a tragically beautiful kind of way and don’t want to see Fitzgerald’s work butchered, this movie is as perfect of an encapsulation of Fitzgerald’s heart, tone and style as I could have possibly imagined.