I usually never read a book right before I see the film because I know they are separate experiences, and it causes me to become unnecessarily nit-picky. Especially with a novel I love as much as The Great Gatsby! However, in this case, reading the novel right before seeing the movie just caused me to marvel at the accuracy. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby plays like an ode to the author. How do you include all of the brilliantly written phrases that flow so elegantly, without it being overkill for an on-screen medium? They are different forms that have to be done in different ways, of course, and you can’t include the exquisitely crafted prose in the film without audiences being confused. It’s just not how people talk! Luhrmann escaped this problem rather creatively. He highlighted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous excerpts excellently by playing up his well-known similarities to Nick Carraway, who is portrayed by Tobey Maguire in the film. As his words fly across the screen while he writes, you get the view of how much he loved writing them and you get to watch the creative process of translating his relationship with Gatsby into a novel. This allows the film’s audience to see all these pieces of writing on screen, and in voice-over. Fitzgerald doesn’t state that Carraway writes the novel in The Great Gatsby, he’s only a “would-be writer” that lands in the bonds business. I think that making Carraway the author of the novel in the film adaptation was an excellent creative choice that heightened the material!
This is the first Baz Luhrmann film that I’ve seen in it’s entirety – I’ve seen clips of Romeo and Juliet in a film history class but found it rather jarring due to the super-modern style along with the Shakespeare. The Great Gatsby‘s dialogue is gorgeous but not hard to decipher like Shakespeare, and the 1920’s time period stayed intact, with a little bit of additional modern flair with the music. I’ve found that with a Luhrmann movie, you have to accept it’s extraordinariness, and it’s something you either enjoy or are confused by. I felt like it was an adventure, and a thrilling experience. It’s truly as if you’re riding a roller coaster, both in emotion and in physicality. Those tracking shots with 3D glasses made my stomach drop!
I feel like I’m one of the only viewers of this movie that actually loved the hip-hop style modern music, it caused the film to be much more immersive. If you play jazz music in a party scene to a modern audience, it won’t give you the desired affect – to make you feel like you could be there. It just seems too old fashioned. The music Luhrmann and producer Jay-Z chose is catchy, beautiful, and matched the scenes. I absolutely loved the whole soundtrack but stand out songs for me were “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie, ‘Over the Love’ by Florence and the Machine, and especially “Young and Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey because of how wonderfully it blended into the scenes and score was Daisy and Gatsby’s love theme. I feel like people nowadays have this false idea of how people in the 1920’s behaved, since all the photos appear all proper and black and white. This made the people who lived in the 1920’s seem like actual individuals who broke loose and partied hardcore! I think that the soundtrack mixed the jazz age with the modern age, and really grounded the story in now.
Now, for what irked me a little bit about the filming. The main problem I had with the movie were the opening scenes that are incredibly fast paced. The first scene where you meet Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) employed some super creative filming styles that I loved. The way Daisy is introduced between the fluttering white curtains is gorgeous! However, I didn’t like how many angles Luhrmann used and cut to, especially during scenes with a lot of dialogue. It was overkill to me, and made me think “slow down, this looks fantastic, but I actually want to see it without you moving all over the place!” I would have much rather had the camera linger a little bit longer throughout the lines. This problem seems to not continue throughout the whole movie though, calms down after you meet Gatsby. This choppy creative camera craziness totally worked for me during the party scenes though! I also noticed that throughout the snappy scenes, the characters mouth movements often did not align with their lines in the angles when they were further away. Especially in the car scenes. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed most of the crazy style and creativity! It was just so Gatsby, even when he had fancy text flying across the screen. While I’ve read many reactions that scoff at the “Luhrmann-ness,” I believe it’s a big part of what made this movie so good. It wasn’t dry and boring – it was sexy, modern, fast paced, and exciting.
Maguire brings so much humanity to Carraway! I didn’t know what to expect with him in the role, but he proved that he doesn’t only resemble Fitzgerald, he was the perfect guy for the part. He expertly played Carraway’s trepidation at partying with Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and his mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) near the beginning of the movie until he gives in and becomes drunk, when he’d only been “twice in his life.” The drunkness also played it’s way into the filmmaking, causing everything to be a little bit more lively and blurry around the edges. I would say that the role of Carraway would be very challenging to pull off well, because it requires a lot of reacting to Gatsby’s pomp and circumstance. This has to feel completely real and not played-up. It causes the relationship between Carraway and the infamous Gatsby to grow organically and feel integral and special to both of the characters’ lives. Personally, I feel like Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio (who are actually best friends in real life) created that brotherhood on screen.
Leonardo DiCaprio was perfectly cast in the title role of Gatsby. He absolutely nails this part – all of the specific prose that describes him seems to explode on screen in his spectacular performance. I got chills when Carraway meets Gatsby for the first time because his smile was the smile. It really was “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.” DiCaprio nailed the voice, the constant beckoning of “Old Sport” without it becoming too ridiculous (which would have been easy), and the specific body language. The challenging part of Gatsby is all the seemingly opposite facets of his personality. He’s completely professional while also being childish, and together while also completely not together at all. A scene that floored me in the film and displayed this magnificently was in the moment when Nick runs in to Tom Buchanan in the “barber shop,” and Gatsby introduces himself. All that togetherness and properness you’d come to know from his interactions with Carraway just dissolve into complete and utter self consciousness. DiCaprio has created a Gatsby that you completely believe as this dreamer who can charm thousands. While over-the-top just like in the novel, his dedication to his dream reduced me to a puddle of tears. His eyes just scream vulnerability and you see how badly he wants everything he’s been working for to come true.
Now, onto the beautiful Carey Mulligan in the role of Daisy. Her performance shocked me, in an extremely positive way. I have been a fan of her for quite a few years, she blew me away in An Education and Never Let Me Go. However, Daisy Buchanan is a huge departure for her. She’s never played anyone so sickly sweet who has a different personality, voice, and mannerisms so completely separate her own. From the moment she talked, and smiled in the first scene when we’re introduced to her I was completely floored. I have no idea how they actually created an actual voice that sounds like “money” but it does. She uses this sing-song American accent that is high pitched and a complete departure from her actual low, mature, British accent that famously doesn’t seem to match her innocent and young-looking face. Carey absolutely nailed this part for me. I believed her as this fake, terrible human being that is basically like a 1920’s Kardashian – I actually can’t believe she pulled it off so well since she’s such a sweet and humble person in real life. She is completely unrecognizable in personality and physicality, it’s almost as if her body has been given to an entirely different person. This is the mark of truly great acting.
Joel Edgerton also completely transformed himself for the role of Tom Buchanan, and in his case I hardly even recognized him at all. Edgerton is well known for his brilliant performance in Warrior, and audiences have never seen him play someone so nasty before. He manages to make us all despise him by the end of the movie, while performing Fitzgerald’s specific mannerisms and speech. I loved how they included his constant use of “anyhow,” and his terrible little pieces of social-justice speech. Seeing actors that are known as good guys completely slam-dunk roles as terrible bad guys is also a mark of a fantastic actor for me. Edgerton’s portrayal was intense, rough-around-the edges (in a good way), and just so nuanced. You could see all his thoughts right in his eyes after he realizes he’s losing control of both his mistress and wife. Also, Edgerton’s natural accent is Australian so he also had to completely change his voice – it was a huge part of why the character came across so well. I’d say his voice was also “full of money” like Daisy’s, in a different and harsher way. This character is an extremely confident and strong presence in the novel, and Edgerton captures that presence.
Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki brought Jordan Baker to life fantastically. She’s brand new to the big-time, with Gatsby as her first major Hollywood movie. In the novel, Jordan is this svelte, confident, and sexy individual that also has a very distinct athletic look. Not only is Debicki a fantastic actress, she also has a very distinct look that matches the character from the novel almost eerily. She really captured my Jordan from my imagination! She doesn’t get as much screen time as the other central characters obviously, but she truly owned what she was given. I’ll be on the lookout for Debicki’s future work. Isla Fisher also shined as Myrtle, truly capturing that actress who is over-the-top and almost made it, and always tries a little bit too hard.
Lastly, the major relationships are what really shined for me. They truly seemed to come to life from the novel. Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship just blossomed on screen, and DiCaprio and Mulligan had the most amazing chemistry. Seeing Daisy cry and see the obvious emotion and true meaning behind calling Gatsby “cool” was just so perfect. I was amazed at how accurately Daisy’s relationship with Gatsby dissolved on screen, and seeing Gatsby’s heartbreak and unwavering devotion while Tom Buchanan chipped away at it was just crushing.
If you want to see a wild and crazy but fantastically accurate adaptation of The Great Gatsby with truly brilliant acting, this film is for you! It hits theaters everywhere today, May 10th 2013.
Artwork by Christine Chang.