So I fell into a bit of a rabbit hole with The Great Gatsby. I hadn’t intended to do anything with the film at all besides enjoy what I was sure would be a messy and gorgeous movie with some friends and some smuggled beverages. (Lesson learned: champagne cocktails do not travel well.)
I had not read the book since it was assigned in high school, so I wandered into the film roughly familiar with the plot, not expecting a lot, and a little tipsy.
The first time I saw this film, I was overwhelmed. I’ll get to why in a little bit, but I ended up reading the book again for the first time in 10 years and seeing the film a second time decidedly sober. I’m posting a much more detailed review on here in the next day or two, but not everybody has time for that sort of thing, so here’s the overview.
(Mild spoilers here. Major spoilers in the full review.)
Love him or hate him, Baz Luhrman has a style that he does incredibly well, and that style works beautifully with the look and feel of The Great Gatsby. Costumes: gorgeous. Camerawork: dynamic. The sets – many of them CGI – were a little more hit or miss; the stylized desolation of the Valley of Ashes worked well for me, while the frequent shots of Gatsby’s or the Buchanan’s houses across the bay were overly false. And the music… well, people will always be divided about Luhrman’s music choices. His modern selection fitted well enough for me, but I would have forgiven him anything simply for his perfect choice of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue playing in the background when Gatsby first appears.
Seriously. The moment is over-the-top and sublime, and Luhrman at his best.
There are more moments in the film that I could have guessed that actually come from the text – images that left me shaking my head at “Baz bein’ Baz” were actually “F. bein’ F.” Images like twins dressed in yellow doing a baby act at Gatsby’s party, a car full of rich African-American passengers driven by a white chauffeur, Gatsby’s mysterious business partner sporting jewelry made from human teeth… all there. Which is why I think the pairing of Luhrman and Fitzgerald overall works so well – there’s a shared love-hate relationship with the excessive, the unbelievable, the extraordinary, the breathlessness of the decade. (It also unfortunately means that Luhrman gets even more heavy-handed with the symbolism than Fitzgerald does.)
But Luhrman’s adaptation, perhaps inevitably so, incorporates two fundamental elements absent from the novel: We know how the 1920’s ends, and we know how Fitzgerald’s life ends. While a certain level of judgment for the hedonism of the decade is in the text, Fitzgerald writing in 1925 had no idea how decisive and traumatic the end of 1929 would be.
The second point is more problematic. Authors should never be confused with narrators/ protagonists… and yet Fitzgerald walked that line boldly. I go into this much more in the longer review, but the upshot is that Fitzgerald saw his life with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald – and the visceral details of their deeply dysfunctional, resentful, and codependent relationship – as a personal goldmine for writing material. While narrator Nick Carraway should not be conflated with Fitzgerald, the distinction is less hard and fast in this case than in others. I do think Luhrman overplays his hand in setting up a framing device of Nick recalling the story from rehab (and being a writer to boot), but the device allows for a stunning blending of the written word into the design of the world and justifies the incorporation of Fitzgerald’s language. Which… probably not worth it, but pretty to look at!
After rereading the book and watching the film the second time, I got a lot more thoughts, especially about the ladies. But at a first pass with a Gatsby in you and a willingness to be dazzled, it is one of the more unique film experiences you will get outside of an art house this summer.
– Lucinda’s kryptonite is George Gershwin.