Within and Without

I don’t think there’s an English major alive who hasn’t read The Great Gatsby at some point in his or her life. There probably aren’t many people out there generally who haven’t read it. It’s such a familiar story that it has almost become a cliché.

This is unfortunate, because it’s a great story. Things become clichés because they are based in truth, and get repeated so often that they almost seem to lose some of that truth that made them so memorable in the first place.

Gatsby_1925_jacket

Put down that rock, F. Scott Fitzgerald fans: the key word in that last sentence was ALMOST. I love The Great Gatsby, even though I haven’t read it since junior year of high school. Even if it does feel sometimes like the book has become a cliché, it doesn’t diminish the beautiful melancholy of Fitzgerald’s story.

But since I mainly write about movies on this blog, this brings us to the latest film adaptation of the novel, directed by Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge fame.

moulin rouge poster

It’s no secret how much I love Moulin Rouge, and Luhrmann’s interpretation of Gatsby bears a number of similarities to it, in terms of the visuals, the music, and the storytelling.

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Luhrmann, first and foremost, loves spectacle. In Luhrmann’s estimation, the bigger and more grandiose, the better. Luhrmann’s turbo-charged approach to filmmaking seems to clash a bit with Fitzgerald’s melancholy tale, and Luhrmann makes a number of stylistic choices that didn’t all go over particularly well in the eyes of viewers.

There’s the soundtrack, which features a number of tracks from current rap and hip-hop performers. The soundtrack album even has a Parental Advisory sticker, which is somewhat surprising.

There’s the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, a casting choice which many folks were none too pleased with.

There’s also Luhrmann’s visual style, which takes Fitzgerald’s prose and turns it into this…

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Or this…

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The film is rated PG-13 for “some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language,” which sums it up pretty well, even though for some reason I always find it amusing when things like “smoking” and “partying” appear in descriptions of a film’s content. (For a really hilarious MPAA rating, see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which is rated PG for “fantasy/action violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar”).

Reception to the film was mixed, as it currently holds a 49% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, although it has a solid 7.3/10 user rating on IMDb.

Most immediately noticeable are the film’s sumptuous visuals. In one of Roger Ebert’s reviews, he said that there are some films where you drink in the visuals, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a textbook example of such a film. The sets, the costumes, the special effects, the production design, the people, all of it looks scrumptious and provides plenty of eye candy (kind of like visual soda pop, to combine metaphors).

The problem with all of this visual splendor is that it can, of course, be pretty distracting. It’s tempting to just lose yourself in the visuals and lose track of the story. And everyone who has read Fitzgerald’s novel knows how great of a story it is, and how memorable the characters are.

The confounding thing about Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that it sometimes seems on the verge of losing its grip on the viewer, only to grab hold again a few minutes later. Luhrmann’s lavish style threatens to drown out the movie at times, but something keeps saving it, and I’m not entirely sure what.

Maybe it’s the actors. I thought the film’s casting was very good. I’ve liked Leo DiCaprio in several of his previous films (Blood Diamond, The Departed, Inception, Shutter Island), but I wasn’t sure if he would make a great Gatsby (get it?) or not. But, somewhat surprisingly, he really did. He did as good of a job with the role as could reasonably have been expected of him. He does great work conveying the many different aspects of Gatsby’s character. There’s actually quite a few similarities Jay Gatsby and Bruce Wayne, in that both characters have this extravagant public lifestyle that is really just a smokescreen that masks a deeply troubled soul. One minute you think Gatsby is the biggest cad in the world, the next minute your heart breaks for him.

The rest of the cast is also really good. The eternally likable Tobey Maguire makes a great Nick Carraway, and provides a solid foundation for the film, since Nick is the novel’s narrator. Carey Mulligan is lovely as Gatsby’s long-lost love Daisy, and Joel Edgerton is appropriately villainous with his slicked-back hair and pencil mustache.

great_gatsby_characters

Baz Luhrmann creates films that take place in a sort of heightened version of reality. Everything and everyone is candy-colored and beautiful, and there’s a somewhat exaggerated sense of drama to everything that happens.

I’m kind of torn as to how well this represents the book, really. I haven’t read the book in seven or eight years, but something I remember from the book is how real it felt- Fitzgerald’s characters always seemed very grounded, like maybe he had hung out with the sort of people that populated his stories. Fitzgerald’s groundedness (is that a word?) and Luhrmann’s heightened sense of style don’t always mesh, and for that reason I don’t really think it’s the best version of the novel.

But as a movie it works pretty well. When it comes to film adaptations of books, I am of two minds. On the one hand, a film adaptation of a book (or TV show or comic book or whatever) is just that, an adaptation of an already existing work, and as such people have a right to expect some faithfulness to the source material.

On the other hand, I also think a film adaptation of an already-existing work should be able, in some sense, to exist on its own. And taken on its own terms as a movie, Luhrmann’s Gatsby works pretty well. It’s certainly never boring, the acting is really good, and there are a number of moving scenes. Kind of like with World War Z, it works as a movie even if it doesn’t work quite as well as an adaptation.

I feel conflicted about that last statement, since the movie still retains at least a sense of the novel’s melancholy beauty. So maybe it works better as an adaptation than I’m giving it credit for.

I guess the bottom line is that I still enjoyed the movie and I think it’s worth seeing, and not just for F. Scott Fitzgerald groupies. Fitzgerald created a story that is truly timeless, and Luhrmann’s stylized film is a good reminder of that.

There’s a lot more to be said about the characters and specific plot points in the story, but I feel like that sort of a discussion would be better suited for a group setting. So watch the movie, then maybe dust off your old paperbacks of The Great Gatsby, and have at it.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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