Gatsbymania: Baz Luhrmann’s Wild Ride

ap_great_gatsby_wm_dm_130509_wblogLet me just say right off the bat that it takes guts to take a sacrosanct American novel, let’s say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and turn it into a film.  And that is exactly what Baz Luhrmann has done.  Art begets art, and so I would never be the kind of person who would refuse to see this film because “the movie is never better than the book,” or “I can’t stand Tobey Maguire,” or, “Jay-Z is not the Jazz Age,” although I know people that I profoundly respect who do not wish to sully the novel that is in their heads with Baz Lurhmann’s outsized pop-opera cinematic style.

Fair enough.

Like Gatsby, they want to preserve their visions of a beloved novel just like he wanted to preserve his idealized notions of Daisy Fay Buchanan.

But hey, that is usually a disaster, so lighten up, it is just a movie, and it is all part of the excitement of living in the present.  If you are too judgmental, you might miss things. Didn’t you read the book?

Now that I have seen it (twice, including once in three-D, which was distracting, as I already wear glasses and then I had another pair; I mean, I love Leo, but seeing him shouting in 3-D was almost more than I could take), I think I have more of a handle on the fact that it is not a replication of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but a reinterpretation that pays homage to the novel in a way that I can respect.  It is not a substitute for the novel, but will lead readers to the novel in a way that might never have happened without this film.  As Daisy Fay Buchanan says of Gatsby’s parties (think of this film as Luhrmann’s Party), “These things excite me so!”


And I really mean it.

But to quote an author you might know, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Love the costumes, love the Tiffany jewelry, love the garish sets, love the fact that I did not detest Tobey Maguire in the way that I was sure that I would.  Love Leo when he is not talking.  Love the actresses who play Myrtle and Jordan, love that Carey Mulligan is not Mia Farrow. Love that the music was thrilling and not ridiculous–it just created an atmosphere of excitement that was commensurate with the freewheeling vulgarity that was a part of the Jazz Age.

But what I absolutely and totally love is Joel Edgerton’s depiction of Tom Buchanan. I knew nothing about this actor, and yet he stole every scene, he understood Fitzgerald’s vision, completely BECAME Tom Buchanan on that screen, and I have to tell you, he out-Gatsbyed every actor in that film. From his commanding sneers in his own fiefdom, to his relentless control in the Plaza Hotel, he was superb.  If acting is a series of successful gestures, he out-acted everyone on that set. If he does not win an Oscar for that role, it is only because Daniel Day-Lewis was nominated for something, and then forget it, you don’t have a chance.  Edgerton’s portrayal of every emotion that an over-privileged brute might feel was so convincing that I am totally afraid of him.  If I met him in person, I would run.  He was that good.  In fact, I don’t know why more people are not completely raving about his performance.  Even if they are totally hating on this movie, I am here to tell you that he is worth the whole bunch of these A-lister movie stars put together.  I am sure I will always be glad I said that.

Love that the music was not an anachronistic distraction (a point I make in a round table discussion with four other Fitzgerald scholars that appears in The Millions. They have fascinating comments, so check it out here at The Millions, which has also just been reposted on Huffington Post Quick Reads).  Love that the shirt scene was not a washout. Love that there is more chemistry between Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio than there was between Robert Redford and, what was her name?  Oh right, Mia Farrow.

But there are a few things that make me want to find a speakeasy and stay there for a very long time.

First, I don’t know why one would have to take one of the best openings in American letters (“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I have been turning over in my mind ever since.  ‘Whenever you fell like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”) and dumb it down to the totally lame cliche of “Always look for the best in people.”

Why why why why why?

Also, many of my friends have been raving about the originality of having Nick in an institution to explain why he is writing a book.  Hey, people write books (especially memoirs) every day for no good reason, so this gimmick seems to protest too much.  It was cool that he was in the Perkins Institute (Fitzgerald’s editor was the famous Maxwell Perkins), but most viewers don’t care about that, and that would never be in the book, no matter what.  It is very important that Nick is not crazy in this novel, so he does not need to be institutionalized, although that is rather clever in terms of originality.  But let me get this straight: we are to believe that Nick has survived the trauma of serving in the Great War, with trench warfare and massive carnage, but a summer of hard-partying and vehicular manslaughter puts him over the edge?  Sorry about Gatsby’s murder, but this makes no sense.

Second, the symbolism of the light at the end of Daisy’s dock hit me over the head so many times that I sustained serious head injuries. Look, I have a bruise on my head, and Baz, “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it.”

Third, even though I think Leonardo DiCaprio is a wonderful actor, and he was outstanding in Revolutionary Road, I thought if he changed accents one more time that I was going to go postal in a movie theater.  Same with “Old Sport,” which he often pronounces “Ol’ Spore,” just like in biology class.

Why why why why why?

In addition,I know Leo was really upset as it get so hot on the set, but there was no reason for that overacting in the Plaza Hotel scene.  Gatsby does not scream.  He has practiced not screaming, and it makes it look like Daisy rejects him over a temper tantrum, and not the other compelling reasons that she leaves him.  Look at the person she lives with every day!! Do you think she would break up with Gatsby over anger management problems?  Come now.  Let’s have a little self-control.

I really hated that there was that teasing suggestion that Daisy might have picked up the phone to call right as Jay Gatsby is getting unceremoniously shot in his pool, and I have a few words for that:  no no no no no.   The whole point is that she is never going to call!

But, isn’t it pretty to think so?

That is why this is a movie ABOUT The Great Gatsby and while highly entertaining, not the book.  Daisy NEVER says stuff like ” I don’t want to go home.”  She never says anything is perfect, including Jay’s parties, and if she did, she wouldn’t really mean it.  She would be talking in fluent debutantespeak, that’s all.

But, these things aside, it is a thrilling, wild ride, colorful, wistful, brash and brave, and I loved watching it.  It is better than the Redford version, it is better than the A and E version with Mira Sorvino, it is better than I thought it would be.  It would be completely boring to repeat the past with these film versions, and Luhrmann’s departures are as scintillating and gaudy as Gatsby’s dream.

Which means maybe he learned from Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel after all.

12 responses to “Gatsbymania: Baz Luhrmann’s Wild Ride”

    • As Myrtle Wilson says in the novel, “You can’t live forever.” Of course you should see it anyway and decide what YOU think about it! Plus, twenties fashion, excess, and Leo. It cannot be all bad. 😉

  1. I haven’t had an opportunity to see the film yet, but I’m so glad I read this first. I’ve decided to read the book one more time and then go enjoy the movie as a celebration of the book as you suggest. Also, since my 16 year old has not yet read the book, I’m going to strongly suggest that she read the book before we see the movie. I would hate for the movie to supplant the images her imagination will create around the original story. My 18 year old has read the book and is outraged by the Jay-Z anachronism. Mark is a trumpet player and can’t imagine why jazz would be replaced by rap. Frankly, I can’t either, but I’ll be anxious to see how it plays out. Thanks for the thought provoking review!

  2. I had so much fun seeing the movie with you, Dr. Wilson! I love hearing your take on it — I can’t decide how I feel about it just yet. I think I’ll need to watch it a few more times to make up my mind. I don’t think I can get over the placement of Nick in an institution. Some of the choices were just really questionable. However, I loved the performances of the actors playing Tom, Myrtle, and Jordan. And of course, I loved looking at Leo. 🙂

    • Loved seeing it with you too! As I said, the film makes me all wistful…best of times and worst of times….but fun to watch in any case!!

  3. Thanks, Doni, for your thorough, knowledgeable, and funny review of a movie that has made me, as well, wistful, at times furious, and at times just terrified. I’m afraid I won’t see it until DVD or cable time, as my back hates movie theaters intensely. Perhaps your long years of Fitzgerald novels makes you uniquely qualified to discuss the movie with such perspective. I’m not sure I’d have that. I once got warned twice by an usher during a dreadfully acted and historically and thematically disastrous adaptation of Austen’s Mansfield Park. (It devoted a great deal of time to a discussion of slavery and emancipation–Austen’s whole point was the world as microcosm of human interaction. No wars, only soldiers. Definitely no slaves, and no talk of emancipation. Ugh.) Anyway, I’m preaching to the choir here. I tend to try to see adaptations with some critical distance, but the more I love the novel, the harder the movie is for me to watch. It sounds kind of fun, but I would definitely NOT reread the novel before seeing it. I’m afraid that same usher would appear with his polyester vest and flashlight and ask me to leave. Perhaps I’ll see it and read the book afterwards. I do think the music would bother me. As a part time musician, I tend to be very, very picky about music in film. I admit, I have my doubts about the current music/rap featured in the movie. Thanks, however, for bringing your fresh interpretation of its parallel to the Jazz Age. FINALLY, someone has offered me a logical reason for removing jazz from the Jazz Age. Jazz, however, is still a thriving, growing, EXCITING musical genre, and I wish the director had thoroughly listened to what is happening in the jazz world today, instead of choosing this more blatant, and I think, more obvious route. Oh well, there’s that wistfulness creeping in…

    At any rate, thanks for your insights, and as usual, your beautifully written and thoughtful piece. I hope you know how much I look forward to your blogs to get me out of bed, out of doctor’s offices, out of decisions about surgery (looking very likely now), and most of all, out of pain. Thank you for always doing that for me.

    • Sarah, thanks so much for the kind words, and thanks so much for reading…I really appreciate it and loved what you said about adaptation…it isn’t easy, it is? Thanks again,

  4. Thanks for all your feedback guys! I’m a ltitle conflicted I think it can go either way. Luhrmann likes to make a spectacle in his films but, if it’s too overdone, we might lose the classic Gatsby feeling. I still can’t wait to see it!

  5. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was
    good. I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;
    ) Cheers!

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