{can’t repeat the past? why, of course you can!}

Of course I saw Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby on the opening night, because it is one of my favorite books and I read it like six times in high school and I wrote my college application writing sample on it and also I like seeing Leo DiCaprio in roles he might be good at. Here is what I thought about it. I am too lazy to hide spoilers behind a cut, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and would like to, probably stop reading now.

I reread TGG last weekend and avoided all movie gossip prior to the showing, so I went into the theater both prepared and ignorant. With F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose fresh in my mind, I was constantly picking out direct lines from the book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie adaption that stayed so true plot-wise to the original book, with two exceptions. One was the absence of Gatsby’s funeral. Not crucial, but added a nice wrap-up to the novel. The other and larger change was that Nick Carraway is apparently now in a sanitarium for morbid alcoholism??? Luhrmann used it as a nice little device to explain Nick’s ongoing narrative of events past, but it seemed a bit of a desperate gimmick. As the setting of the movie’s very first scene, it also began a portrayal of Nick that, while complete and complex in its own right, was not entirely who I had found Fitzgerald’s original narrator to be.

I think it’s pretty standard that, when done well, movies are generally more emotionally charged than books—you can’t ignore the visual aspect when reacting to plot developments. I liked that diCaprio’s Gatsby was emotional and sometimes fragile; I sympathized more with him and his blind optimism than I did with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, whose essence is, after all, built on a façade. That was true with diCaprio as well, but seeing his clear agony when planning his reunion with Daisy really drove home his desperation to repeat the past.

Nick Carraway’s increased sentimentality I did not appreciate. Fitzgerald’s Nick is, to me at least, a deliberately understated character. He’s an observer, but not necessarily a passive or tender-hearted one. Tobey Maguire’s Nick, by contrast, was drawn to Gatsby to the point of besottedness. Interesting in its own right, I suppose, but often drew the focus of the film from Gatsby, the undisputed hero of the book, to Nick and his own reactions and emotions. He was a weaker observer, asexual at the very least, at one point even lewdly taunted by Tom Buchanan for “always liking to watch.” His affair with Jordan, implied so strongly in the book as to make it obvious, never really materializes (although Jordan herself, one of my favorite characters in the book for her extreme disinterest, was far too giddy in the film for my tastes).

The true scene stealer here, and the primary reason I would watch this movie again, was Joel Edgerton as Tom. I suspected from the trailer that he could be great, and he was fantastic. Tom—brutish, bigoted, and abusive—is a bit of a one-note character in the book. Edgerton kept these key traits, but also underlined how vindictive and truly dangerous he was. In one of the plot’s most pivotal scenes, the confrontation in the hotel room between Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, you could clearly see the emotional duality in Tom’s actions: rage at what he has just discovered between Gatsby and his wife, and a controlled confidence that he will emerge on top. The tension in the audience was palpable as Tom goaded an increasingly excitable Gatsby, giving real substance to Daisy’s doubts about her future with a bootlegger of questionable dealings. (The tension was there, at least, until any one of Carey Mulligan’s lines. The true disappointment in this movie, all her lines were stiffly delivered and reminded me instantly that I was sitting in a movie theater watching career actors and that I had a sugar headache from eating too many watermelon Sour Patch Kids.)

I’ve read a few reviews of the movie since Friday night, almost all negative (except for a seemingly universal awe for Edgerton’s performance). Yes, it wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, but please, reviewers, get off your high horse. You are not God, you are not F. Scott Fitzgerald, you do not know the one true meaning of TGGI found the movie to be enjoyable, entertaining, and, for the most part, well done, and I’m perfectly satisfied with that.

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2 responses

  1. This review is perfect. I really enjoyed the movie as well – even the soundtrack, which consisted almost entirely of Jay-Z songs.

    Completely agree with you on enjoying being able to pick out lines that came directly from the book. Favorite: “Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one”.

    Love Baz Luhrmann!

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