I love Gatsby. I love the character, I love the story and maybe one day I’ll love this film. For now, this is just the better-than-I-thought Gatsby. But let me tell you a bit more about that, old sport.
I loved Jay Gatsby as soon as I first met him. Well, like the people at one his parties, I haven’t technically ever met him of course. But unlike that “rotten crowd”, I wasn’t drawn to his money or the salacious rumours but to his incredible capacity for hope. Mr Adams, my GCSE English Teacher, was not a fan and we argued about it violently. He’d call Gatsby a liar and a criminal which may well be the case, but nobody’s perfect. He saw Gatsby as a fantasist, an obsessive who damages lives by asking “too much” and refusing to let go. I saw him as a grafter, a romantic but far from a dreamer – he’s someone happy to fight for what he wants and, ok, to take a few shortcuts where necessary. Many years later and I feel like Gatsby is probably all those things and more, and it’s perhaps that complexity and those contradictions that make him, well, great.
But it’s not just the character I love, The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books of all time. Unappreciated when it was published, it’s a timeless story which has it all – money and corruption, prejudice and suspicion, hope, love and tragedy. But it is F Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant writing that I think makes Gatsby so special. It’s not an unwanted phonecall it’s “that fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency”. Nick finds himself “within and without, enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”. The story has so many quotable lines and a playfulness and poetry about it like little else. Whatever the film’s qualities, it’s fantastic to see these lines delivered on screen – often literally, as it turns out.
Because, like it or loathe it, this version of The Great Gatsby is a movie that’s typically Baz Luhrmann. Visually and aurally striking, this is a full-on, turn-it-up-to-11 take compared to anything that has come before it. This is basically “Great Gatsby: the Opera”, pumping up the volume, doubling-down on tragedy and yes, side-lining some of the subtlety along the way. The first time I saw it I just didn’t connect with it at all. It was stunning but shallow, the cinema equivalent of fast food – short-lived and with little nutritional value. The 3D glasses might not have helped, making the incredible visuals pop but adding a barrier between me and the screen that was maybe more than just a physical one. However, after this second viewing, with both those glasses and fanboy expectations left at the door, it’s really grown on me.
Luhrmann’s style was always perfect for the lavish parties, bringing a dazzling and chaotic sense of energy to proceedings that leaves you feeling a mixture of drunk and assaulted. Similarly, the cartoonish feel of the driving scenes might have put some off, but I felt they perfectly conveyed the “carelessness” that Fitzgerald writes of (albeit later, when taking about the Buchanans). Finally, a special mention for the flashbacks too, where tales seem somehow taller and Luhrmann becomes part storyteller, part stage magician – showing us just enough to take it all in but not so much that we look too closely or question too hard.
What surprised me more (and I did not fully appreciated the first time) is how it complements and enhances some of the quieter, more dramatic scenes. Gatsby’s tea party and subsequent house tour are wonderfully OTT with rooms full of flowers, thousands of shirts and hundreds of candles – it’s overwhelming to watch so it’s easy to feel for Daisy as she stumbles bewildered from one grand gesture to the next. But the highpoint for me, is one critical late scene in a sweltering hotel room which is an absolute pressure cooker taking things to boiling point and beyond. The combination of Fitzgerald’s words and Luhrmann’s visuals perfectly convey the heat, the resentment, the anger and the explosive consequences. Gatsby might try to argue that “none of this has any consequence” but it’s a desperate, unconvincing claim – as we will soon come to see.
But for all that I think works, there were two things about this version that still disappointed me second time around. Firstly, with so much style on screen, it’s hard for the actors to make too much of an impression and I think most did a solid but not fantastic job. The supporting cast are good, but Tom, Myrtle, Wolfsheim and the rest of the gang are not exactly multifaceted. I liked, but didn’t love, Leonardo DiCaprio who struck me as a little lightweight for the role. He can definitely do larger-than-life, as he showed in The Wolf of Wall Street, but he didn’t fully convince me as a man who could shape his own life so dramatically and charm his way around a whole city. Carey Mulligan is pretty good as Daisy, true, she spends much of the film looking wistful and helpless but Daisy always struck me as more cork than character, already defeated when we meet and generally bobbing around waiting for the next big wave to crash into her. Tobey Maguire brings his trademark bewilderment which feels very much more “without” than within but works particularly well for his narration – giving it a sleepy, almost medicated, feel that I’m going to assume was deliberate.
My second complaint is that there are a couple of times when the film feels oddly overly-prescriptive. Notably, both moments use dialogue that wasn’t in the novel, such as when Gatsby tells Nick “the truth is I’m empty…” and more besides. I’ve since read that this line was taken from an unpublished section of the book but it feels uncharacteristic, overly mawkish and I think it would have been better staying there. Contrast this to some rather subtler changes, such as in the scene where Gatsby explains his plan to Nick and both his accent and “old sport” go noticeably missing, and the difference is jarring. As many have suggested, perhaps it’s better to show, not tell.
So, like the man himself, this movie’s not perfect but there is substance there behind the style. If you want a 1920s period piece, then a movie opening with Kanye and Jay Z is unlikely to float your boat. It’s not a repeat and certainly not a replacement, but maybe a reinterpretation. I believe in the green light too, and I for one am happy that there is room in the world for more than one Jay Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby (2013) is currently available to watch free via Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK. It’s also one of this week’s films we’re watching as part of the Streamers Film Club