by Aine Mc Keown
It’s decadent, idealistic, resistant, and excessive. It’s a roaring, melancholic and choreographed tale. It’s a circus, a spectacle, a show and it’s full on. Nothing about ‘The Great Gatsby’ is small. Everything is opulent and grand from the second it comes roaring onto the screen until the credits roll. We are watching greed, lust and envy in their most corporeal forms, brought to life by the most self-indulgent, immoral and thrill seeking people the roaring twenties could spit out.
And yet, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is known to be possibly the greatest of the “Great American Novels”. Although never achieving the success and respect the novel deserved while Fitzgerald was alive, the twentieth century has seen it earn its place and hold onto it firmly, in the canon of great works of literature. It’s a story meant to be read, the details need to be spoken not seen, or missed as is the case with screen adaptations. Not having enough time to learn these details is always to the detriment of the novel.
The director, Baz Luhrmann, has a small body of work that exudes showmanship. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ takes many liberties, but in no way fails to capture everything we love about the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. What he fails to do with ‘The Great Gatsby’ is to communicate the essence of the novel in an effectual way. Elements are there but are covered up by the spectacle and carnival of Gatsby’s world. Paradoxically, this is also Luhrmann’s greatest achievement for this film. He left no room for doubting the grandeur, excess and sheer ridiculousness of the roaring twenties, something Fitzgerald gets across fantastically using only his words. But he misses the point, the lie lesson’s, the social commentary is startlingly absent. Luhrmann’s second strong point is the soundtrack he uses. Using Jay-Z, a modern day hip-hop producer/rapper, who is in ways the embodiment of the decadent lifestyle of the twenty-first century, was a stroke of genius. His hip-hop/RnB background infused with twenties jazz and heavy beats, are perfect. We’re treated to vocal performances from Florence Welch and Emeli Sande, with a very well placed cover of ‘Crazy In Love’ by Beyonce. In many ways, it is the highlight of the film and gives it the umph that is needed. Luhrmann almost spends too much time on his reinvention of this world, the image takes over from the substance and as a reader of the book I missed those moments that gave insight and detail. If you’ve never read the book then it’s all well and good, however if you have you’ll either be blown away by the feast for the eyes, or you’ll be left feeling somewhat cheated and lied to.
In no way as a reader do we feel true compassion or caring for these characters. Our narrator, and for all intents and purposes Fitzgerald himself, is Nick Carraway. His innocence and eagerness to enjoy the life afforded to him by those in a higher class, is something to be pitied and causes certain concerns. We do not hate him, rather we think him naïve and idiotic. Tobey Maguire does a very good job in this role, using his wide eyed Peter Parker naivety effectively. Daisy Buchanan played by Carey Mulligan, has her place in the centre of one of the novels main conflicts. She is a shallow, self-absorbed young woman. Her love for her husband Tom Buchanan and former flame Jay Gatsby, causes destruction and pulls everyone in her life into a whirlwind of booze filled decisions that end in disaster. Carey Mulligan plays this character brilliantly, with equal parts silliness and idiocy. Tom Buchanan, played by Joel Edgerton of ‘Warrior’ fame, constantly reminds us that this Jazz-Age party is not always what it seems, that beneath the surface scandal and corruption is never far away. Aside from his resemblance to Conan O’Brien, Edgerton brings out the worst in this white supremacist and adulterous husband and certainly gives the audience incentive to throw their weight behind Gatsby. Jordan Baker and Mrtyle Wilson are played by Elizabeth Debicki and Isla Fischer, and help prop up the story and fill out the space. In the novel these characters possess more elevated roles, and while Myrtle Wilson is used for those integral moments, there is a sense of waste and un-fulfilment, particularly with the lack of character development of Jordan Baker.
Of course, just like these characters, the audience is dying to see Gatsby. We are teased for a few moments, hearing only his voice before an unfortunate James Bond-esque introduction. This small speed bump aside, Leonardo Di Caprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby is undoubtedly the best part of the film. It’s another stellar performance from the cheated Oscar nominee and without his presence; the social commentary and lessons on the “American Dream” would fail to be communicated to the necessary level. Di Caprio is as usual a pleasure to watch, and while he might not necessarily be awarded for his turn, he undoubtedly does what he always does and gives a below par film the quality that it should have tenfold and it is all the better for it.
All performances were accurately characteristic and enjoyable; the look was dreamlike and spectacular; the music slick and inspired. It is more likely to satisfy those who are strangers to the novel. I would warn the diehard fans that they should remember Baz Luhrmann’s style and flair for reinvention; you will not get a quintessential adaptation. Haters of 3D will feel justified in their opinions and I cannot disagree with them. It did the film no favors This is a middle of the road three star film, earning these brownie points mainly for everything other than script writing and plot development. Having book read the book and seen this film, I would recommend picking up the book. I prefer not to be disappointed in the telling of a story.