Everyone has a The Great Gatsby story. Some of us were forced to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic in high school, some of us discovered it on our own. Some of us thought Gatsby is a pathetic lying shrew, some of us thought he is a helpless romantic. My experience with Gatsby was a dynamic one: Assigned it in a high school English class, it was the first book I was forced to read and then fell in love with. I didn’t like books as a young man. Believe it or not, I was a jock. (Stop laughing.) But Fitzgerald was the writer that ignited a literary passion in me that blazed through the rest of his books and on to the rest of the great American writers, and still burns today. Even when I shopped at strip malls and wore Old Navy sweatshirts to school dances back home in Missouri, I strived for glamour. And Gatsby gave it to me. That book reads as a film. When I was a teenager reading it for the first time, I fantasized about how I’d want to see it on the screen. In fact, that’s what Truman Capote famously said when he was assigned to write a (never-made) screenplay of the film: The book is a movie.
Because we’ve all imagined our own versions, to make the book into a film is bold. But Baz Luhrmann did it. Not that this is news. There are billboards and bus signs and magazine covers and Prada parties and Gatsby inspired pink seersucker Brooks Brothers suits and every entertainment show in the world was in New York last week for the splashy premiere at Lincoln Center. I was at that premiere too. My first impressions? I found it absolutely invigorating and optically exhausting. It was basically more saturated version of Moulin Rouge but without the singing and spruced up in 3D. (I say this is a compliment, but I’ve read reviews that say the same thing as a complaint.) Luhrmann gave all of us who read the book as a young person with childhood fantasies of fancy flapper bashes exactly what we wanted: Glamour. The pearls literally flew off the screen. When Gatsby is famously ripping his beautiful shirts out of his closet they feel like they’re falling on the audience as well as Daisy.
Leonardo DiCaprio was swell as Gatsby. But then again, I’ll support any film that gets Leo wet. (See: Romeo + Juliet’s balcony scene, the second half of Titanic, all of The Beach. In Gatsby, when he first meets Daisy he does so in a wet white suit.) I’ve always been a fan of Tobey MaGuire’s ability to act almost exclusively with his eyes too, despite finding his Carraway character in a sanitarium to deal with alcoholism a little far fetched since he is the moral compass of the book. I at first had some trouble reconciling Carey Mulligan with the part of Daisy because, well, I always had a distaste for Daisy’s disingenuous fragility and false innocence. But despite Mulligan reading too smart to play that sort of ditz, she gave a strong performance. (Her best line? “I love large parties. They’re so intimate. Small parties don’t have any privacy.” Luhrmann has said that some of the dialogue in the film came from the book, but since there isn’t that much dialogue in the book he also pulled from letters between Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, as well as other books with similar characters.) The supporting roles were suburb too: Joel Edgerton (who, randomly, I just watched in Kinky Boots on an airplane and fell in love with) was strong and surprisingly likeable as Tom Buchanon, and he has the best opening sequence in recent cinema history; Isla Fischer does a fabulous floozy; and the Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Daisy’s BFF Jordan Baker came out of no where and held her own.
The day after the New York premiere, Vogue’s Anna Wintour and The New Yorker’s David Remnick hosted a luncheon for Luhrmann and the cast. Luhrmann said something during his (comedically animated and unscripted) presentation that I thought was spot on: “Now is the time to look at Gatsby as a social behemoth in modern culture.” The director first got the idea to do the film while taking the Orient Express train through Siberia. The idea was solidified after the recession of 2008, which was similar (though much less drastic) to the self-reckonings many were forced to make when the Roaring ‘20’s moved into the Great Depression. The things we are seeing happening today — “the moral elasticity of Wall Street,” as Luhrmann put one example — were happening then too. Was The Great Gatsby not a warning sign of unchecked materialism in a superficial world? Can we not say the same about today? A girl at my table at the luncheon compared Bernie Madoff to Gatsby. Yes, that was a stretch, even for me who loves some exaggeration. But it did get me thinking.
Some people are arguing over the morality of the character of the great Gatsby in this film. Is DiCaprio gross? Is he gross enough? Should he be that likeable? That’s a longer debate and one that has, and will, go on for generations. Luhrmann said at the luncheon that he thought Fitzgerald predicted the end of the Jazz Age and the oncoming Depression. I’m not sure if that was conscious or not as Fitzgerald was a raging alcoholic who reportedly was barely conscious, especially at the end before he died of a heart attack at the age of 44. But lets not forget that the book ends (spoiler alert!) with the murder of a man all alone in the gilded pool of a big empty house, a man who made himself through tricky deals and lies and loves a woman who has selfishly just saved her own skin. Luhrmann said something so beautiful about Nick at lunch: “He came to work in bonds but he ended up writing a book about a guy everyone forgets and his life began.”
It was inspiring to have Luhrmann’s insight into his movie. One of the biggest criticisms of the film will be his use of 3D. (Indeed, in the car chases in the film I was reminded of Janet Jackson’s music video for ‘All For You,’ where she and her back up dancers vogue whilst riding colorfully graffitied carriages on imaginary animated subway rides through the future.) Yet, he made a good point: Fitzgerald was fascinated by the modernities of his time, most obviously a fast lifestyle and affection for jazz music. To the latter, he brought up Jay-Z, which at first seemed like an unlikely fit for a film about the Roaring 20’s, but again Luhrmann insisted Fitzgerald would have been a Beyonce fan. “The music? I knew there would be eyeball rolling but Fitz, if he was anything, he wasn’t nostalgic. He put jazz and pop front and center in his text,” Luhrmann said at lunch. “It made the text immediate, he made it now.” And specifically about Jay-Z? “One of the most professional people I ever worked with.” Jay-Z ended up a producer of the film.
I must say this film was well researched. Luhrmann took liberties, but he wasn’t irresponsible with them. The guy even took an ocean liner to New York from London because that’s what Fitzgerald would have done, and then took a helicopter ride around Long Island to get a feel for the suburban beach mansions that Gatsby and Buchanan would have driven by on their rides into town. He took Mulligan down to the Princeton Library in New Jersey, where there is a trove of Fitzgerald’s letters, to fine-tune her awareness of the dialogue.
At the end of the day, the question all movie reviews ask is: Should people see this film? My answer is yes. Oh, absolutely. It’s good fun (who doesn’t love a good pool party scene?) and even if you skip (you shouldn’t) the moral lesson of an unchecked American Dream the costumes are wonderful. Personally, I love too that the film has snapped Fitzgerald’s book back into the zeitgeist, and has gotten people excited to read it again. At Luhrman’s lunch, they gave out copies of the book and, unlike most goodie bags at these sorts of functions that people throw away, everyone took theirs with them. Hell, I think it’s great when anything reminds people that there are these things called books sold at these things called bookstores. And the fact that The Great Gatsby is back on the best sellers lists is incentive enough for me.