The Great Gatsby: Why Leo, if not Luhrmann, was, indeed, great
I do not want to talk about the soundtrack.
Okay, maybe I do, but just to get it out of the way so we can focus on other aspects of the movie! There were a lot of literature purists, snobby post-graduates, and people who are probably just jealous of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dashing good looks who were determined to hate this movie long before they saw it (if they indeed debased themselves enough to endure it). And, honestly, I would normally be on that side of the fence when it comes to movie remakes (that Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley? Come onnn), but, in this case, I definitely was not. The reason, it seemed, for 99.9% of the preemptive criticism was the soundtrack. There was much outcry over using Jay Z & co on the soundtrack- historical inaccuracy! it was THE JAZZ AGE! and etc, to which I have to say: Dudes, calm down. Baz Luhrmann does not think Gatsby and Nick actually listened to Kanye and will.i.am. He does, however, know a thing or two about making anachronisms work. He has cabaret performers singing Madonna in the early 1900s in Moulin Rouge. In Romeo + Juliet, he retains the original Shakespearean script and dialogue in a modern beach-side setting where the Montagues and Capulets are warring gangs in convertibles and Hawaiian shirts. And they work. Luhrmann knows how to create the perfect juxtaposition so the past and present complement each other. He knows how to find the essence of the original and communicate it in an updated way. Or, at least, he did. The soundtrack to Gatsby was one of its biggest downfalls, I’ll admit. But it failed, I think, because it was too eclectic and careless, not simply because it included anachronistic hip hop. It really could’ve worked well.
Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. That’s what goes through the head of a theater-goer who is both a Luhrmann and a Fitzgerald fan as she watches the movie unfold. It wasn’t terrible, but it certainly didn’t live up to his previous literary adaptation’s greatness. There were many moments that captured the novel’s extravagance wonderfully, but there were just as many moments that completely missed the novel’s subtleties. The framing device placing the narrator, Nick Carraway, in a sanitarium was contrived and drained the movie of its energy and whirl, jarringly taking the audience out of Gatsby’s gaudy world, but the movie was definitely not all bad. For me, the absolute best part of the film was Leonardo DiCaprio proving skeptics wrong and giving a spot-on performance as the mysterious millionaire.
Some said Leo wouldn’t portray the underlying self-doubt of Jay Gatsby, that even perhaps Tobey Maguire (who played Nick Carraway) was a better choice (Sorry, Spiderman, but that’s not a movie I’d want to see). Those people, I think, were dead wrong. Dicaprio really captured the complexities of Fitzgerald’s best creation perfectly. The title character of The Great Gatsby is a self-made man who came from meager beginnings and built a massive fortune through organized crime. He hated his family’s poverty and longed for the life and love of the luxurious Daisy Buchanan, for whom he throws lavish parties night after night in the hopes that she will eventually attend. In the movie as in the book, Gatsby’s reputation precedes him, and we meet his mansion, his parties, his fans, the perception of himself that he created, long before we meet him (in a bedazzling spectacle punctuated by fireworks.) His wealth, background, and hidden torments are veiled in mystery until the movie’s end and his suave looks and charm always seems just slightly off but are easily dismissed after seeing his charismatic smile.
He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.
And this is because of course that Gatz-turned-Gatsby has become so skilled at presenting himself just as far as he wanted to be understood, something that DiCaprio’s performance nails. Not only does he master the theatricality of the man in the mansion, but he has also managed to capture the impossible hope and optimism. Gatsby is defined by his clinging hard to the past and the elusive American dream and the consequential torment of corrupted “new money” hiding underneath that secretive charm. It’s truly great to watch the nuances of his performance as it slowly falls apart. A standout moment was definitely when Gatsby and Daisy meet again for the first time in Nick’s house and DiCaprio is so nervous, uncomfortable, and unsure that when he utters the words “I’m certainly glad to see you again” it is with absolute sincerity (and makes up for the unfortunate few (hundred) too many times he has to say his catch phrase, “old sport”)
Finally, if Gatsby is at all great (we know the greatness is partly illusion) it is because of his incredible capacity for hope and his uncorrupted heart contrasted with the corruption of wealth. When we see Leo as Gatsby losing his temper for one short moment at Tom (Daisy’s husband) it is the seething, tightly wound sort of anger of a man whose whole persona is constantly on the edge, on the brink of discovery. The exhaustion of all that uncertainty. DiCaprio pulls out a vein-in-the-head-throbbing moment and quickly retreats back into the obvious facade of the cool, collected hero in a pink suit, desperately trying to keep up appearances and make this day, which will define the rest of his life, go the way he planned. The earnestness of his movements in those last moments with Daisy and then again when he lingers outside her house are just as effective as his breaking, optimistic words. When Nick calls out in his final words to Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” it rings true for the Gatsby Leo portrays as much as the Gatsby Fitzgerald penned.
But, don’t worry! I’m prepared for you to argue with me. I know you all didn’t like it as much as I did (us Leo and/or Luhrmann fans can be rather biased) but I’d love to hear your take on the adaptation in the comments below.