The Great Gatsby
High school was the time I became introduced to a lot of great classic literature. I had some interesting reading in middle school, but the ninth grade was the moment where I was brought into the best of the best. Steinbeck, Shakespeare, their stories have become staples of literature and the more I’ve grown, the more I’ve understood why. It wasn’t the stories. Of Mice and Men and Romeo + Juliet are great stories, but if someone else would have told them, I doubt they would have been as good. The reason the classics exist is the voice behind the story, the authors.
I believe that any story has the possibility to work as long as they have a good storyteller. Romeo + Juliet is a story of young love, but their dialogue really blooms from the poetry and makes the play alive for readers. Of Mice and Men is about a friendship between two hardworking Joes, but Steinbeck’s experience with the Great Depression gave detailed advantage that would help this novel become a great account of that time period. Adaptations of these stories have come and gone with their own variations and style. Not all of them work, but it’s interesting and bold for someone to come in and recapture whatever made these stories work. Director Baz Luhrmann (the same guy behind Moulin Rouge!) steps in to bring his version of another American classic, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Having read the book, the movie seems to follow it in a similar manner. The setting is the roaring twenties New York City. Nick Carraway (played by Toby Maguire) is an aspiring bond broker who moves to the city hoping to make success. He has rented a small home on long island, sandwiched between several mansions. His next door neighbors place has become a bright beacon, home to a giant party every night.
This man is Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).
It is one summer morning in which Carraway is invited to one of Gatsby parties. Upon getting through the loud music and cheap liquor, he manages to find that Gatsby is a young millionaire with a questionable past. The two become friends as Carraway marvels at how much Gatsby has made himself a wonder of the world. It’s only later when Gatsby asks Carraway to invite his cousin Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan), who lives right across the bay in her husband’s home. The two meet up and rekindle an old romance with Gatsby hoping to pick things up again from five years before.
In a lot of ways, this version of The Great Gatsby is really trying to tell a very faithful adaptation of the novel. Not only is the design grand, but it is a celebration of the roaring twenties. The art direction is grand. The costumes are grand. Even some of the recreated New York City of the past feels grand. The opens large and grand and tries to stay that way. It quickly becomes a little overwhelming.
I’ve always seen The Great Gatsby as a more subtle story about the wealthy, but Baz Luhrmann throws a lot at the audience. In every shot, there’s a feeling of large perspective around you, CGI effects of the past that feel out of place, and plenty of modern day pop songs that feel badly out of place. The two biggest problems are the music and the constant noise. The first hour never really gives it’s viewers a break, passing by a lot of the names and plot very fast. It feels like I was looking at The Great Gatsby if Disneyland was doing a 3D movie on it. But the music really irritates me as this has made one of the greatest period pieces into something that’s going to sound dated in five years (Who thought that putting in a Jay-Z song was a good idea?).
Aside from some strange creative ideas, how do the actors stand out? I’ll admit that Leonardo DiCaprio is actually a good pick. He plays up Gatsby as a cool, but gentle and crazily hopeful man. Tobey Maguire makes for a good narrator, coming off as naïve, yet productive. They’re all pretty likable. The cast feels perfect, but when I hear a Jay-Z song, the image is hard to buy.
I’ll give this three green beacons out of five. It’s certainly a spectacle for the eye, if not a little too much. But why with the pop songs! I think that Baz Luhrmann was afraid that if he didn’t include pop songs, this movie wouldn’t have been interesting to a younger crowd. He really underestimates how smart kids are. If he would have laid off on the pop songs and too glitzy imagery, The Great Gatsby might have been the most faithful adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.