In Defense of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby

Gatsby Party
The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
4star-2

As a novel deemed incapable of translating onto screen, preconceived notions were buzzing about the film prior to release, especially with director Baz Luhrmann’s sensational modern eye attached to the holiest of holy American classics. With glitz and glamor, Hip-Hop and a glossy 3D finish, Luhrmann’s adaptation paints a boisterous statement—it’s no surprise critics are dissatisfied and dismissive of the highly stylized 21st century vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

  Gatsby gif Gatsby gif

But with such a hyper musical score, 3D adaptation and over-stylized CGI, this is questionable content worth giving a chance, because while I’ve read the book and seen the Robert Redford adaptation, I was a little iffy as well. Instead of watching this expecting a page to screen adaptation, consider it a page to screen interpretation coated with 21st century context that only Baz can create. If the greatest complaint is Luhrmann’s style over substance, isn’t that exactly who Jay Gatsby was?

Leo Dicaprio as Gatsby

The eyes in Gatsby

Revered as the great American novel as a cautionary tale of excess, greed and the American dream, the backbone of Gatsby transcends through generations. It’s heavily saturated with the complexities and inequality of race, class and social structure. With Luhrmann’s Gatsby being the fifth adaptation presented on screen, the content’s relevance still peaks today.

Dicaprio and Mulligan in Gatsby

Let’s get one thing straight about Luhrmann’s film—this “Hollywood catnip story” wasn’t flippantly thrown together. With prior films no stranger to excessive criticism (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet),  Luhrmann expects to take responsibility for his unconventional storytelling. When it comes to the deep-rooted facts of Gatsby, Luhrmann did his homework. From the framework of the 1920s shallow extravagance to Fitzgerald’s bouts with alcoholism to personal letters between Fitzgerald and wife Zelda…Luhrmann’s twists to adapting the novel make sense…a lot of sense.

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carroway

Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) is our narrator as he is in the novel, but Luhrmann’s framing device of narration in the film introduces Carroway in a sanitarium, retelling his past with Gatsby on paper as he constructs his manuscript of The Great Gatsby floundering in a post-Jazz Age reality. “The setting wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to Fitzgerlad, given Zelda’s agonizing struggles with mental illness,” Luhrmann told The Huffington Post. “Fitzgerald and Zelda were not strangers to sanitariums. Fitzgerald was not a stranger to being destroyed and decimated by alcoholism.”

“Mulligan’s Daisy is a touch more sympathetic than the careless heiress of Fitzgerald’s novel, and once again the explanation can be found in the filmmaking team’s extensive research. Because the novel is so short—and so light on dialogue—Luhrmann, Pearce and the actors drew liberally from Fitzgerald’s other works, as well as his unpublished drafts and letters, to flesh out the story. To play the elusive Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio steeped himself in an early draft of the novel titled Trimalchio. When it was time to play a scene, he would read the script, then the passage in Gatsby and then the passage from Trimalchio. And Carey Mulligan looked beyond the Daisy of the novel poring over letters by Zelda as well as Fitzgerald’s first love, Genevra King.” via The Huffington Post

Another controversial move bringing Gatsby on screen was Luhrmann’s decision to use 3D.

“Luhrmann shot some tests, liked what he saw and opted to forge ahead. [Luhrmann] went, ‘I know there’s gonna be noise, eyeball-rolling, a whole lot of easy cheap shots. Go for it, my friends.’ But the bottom line is, Fitzgerald wouldn’t have looked away from that new step, embracing that modern technique.”

Gatsby Manor
Gatsby Manor

I didn’t have reservations about the film being shot in 3D as much as I was a little confused seeing Jay Z’s name attached to the project. With music ranging from Lana Del Rey to Jack White to the XX, the score isn’t as distracting or overtly in your face as I anticipated (read: Moulin Rouge). If the point of this remake is to create a modern twist to the story we all know, I applaud Luhrmann for his musical choices, because Jay Z’s involvement proved me very wrong.

“’The Hip-Hop soundtrack stemmed from Luhrmann’s understanding of Fitzgerald as an unflinching modernist. He took African American street music, jazz, and he put it front and center in the novel,’ Luhrmann said. ‘He did that because he wanted the book to feel immediate and dangerous.’ But the jazz of the 1920s has long since matured into something classical and quaint, so Luhrmann turned to a newer form: Hip Hop.”

Aside from the controversy of constructing the film, the strongest component of Gatsby are the actors who brought these flawed characters to life. Leo Dicaprio’s embodiment of the elusive mystery millionaire is one of his best performances. His eager and desperate portrayal of the character who tries to buy his own happiness brings an emotional resonance as a more tragic and insecure man than the relentless hunk that Robert Redford created. Dicaprio made me truly sympathetic for his heartbreaking desire to merge his past into his present and his unyielding hope that rested in the green light across the bay.

  Carey Mulligan as DaisyWhile I mull back and forth with the argument about whether or not Daisy was miscast (the way Clare Danes was miscast as Juliet), I appreciate Mulligan’s approach, but find her to be the weakest portrayal of all the characters. Openly shallow, flimsy and drowning in greed, Luhrmann’s Daisy possessed very little of these toxic traits, or she at least didn’t exude them the way the character should have like Mia Farrow did. Farrow’s Daisy uttered a single sentence that solidified her unforgivable, superficial nature—When Gatsby asked why she didn’t wait for him, she tearfully responded, “Because rich girls don’t marry poor boys.”

Joel Edgerton in Gatsby

Although Mulligan may not have been my first choice as Daisy, I am completely satisfied with Luhrmann’s choice of Tom Buchanan—Joel Edgerton. Edgerton’s performance was not only convincing, but nearly stole every scene apart from Dicaprio. From his slimy snarls and smarmy, pretentious demeanor, he nailed the scumbag character from start to finish. Another scene-stealer was the lanky and beautiful Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) who was unfortunately underutilized and underdeveloped.

Jordan Baker
Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker

But whether or not I personally loved the film is irrelevant on the larger scale, but another fan of the adaptation sparked my interest. Eleanor “Bobbie” Lanahan (writer, filmmaker and granddaughter of Fitzgerald) loved it too. At the premiere, Lanahan approached Luhrmann to congratulate him on his film.

“I do feel Scott would have been proud,” Lanahan said. “It’s got tragedy and comedy and character. The movie took little away from the book, but added to it. For me, it is the first time I truly felt sympathy for Gatsby on film. I think you proved that first person narrative can, in fact, be translated to film.” –via Forbes.

Leo Dicaprio as Gatsby

Lanahan also told The Huffington Post that she liked the film considerably more than she expected to. “From the trailers, I thought it was going to be a movie on steroids,” she said. “Everything was going to be pumped-up, the emotions were going to be exaggerated, they were going to be about as in-depth as Bruce Willis. But I was very happily surprised that the characters were moving. They were touching. I cared about Daisy, actually, and I cared about Gatsby and all of them.”

Whether or not you agree with me or Luhrmann or Lanahan, it’s undeniable that Luhrmann lived and breathed Gatsby in order to mold this adaptation with a sort of historical relevancy. The parties were grand, the music was controversial and the characters were morally corrupt…sounds a lot like Gatsby to me.

     Gatsby and the Green Light

Also check out my previous post Anticipating the Great Gatsby.

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25 Comments

  1. Nice!!! I am rereading the book right now…I am becoming even more impressed with Luhrmann’s depiction.

    As far as Daisy goes…I think we, the audience, needed to love Dasiy. We needed to really want Gatsby and Daisy to be together. I think if they played up her superficial nature, I would’ve hated her. Maybe for dumb audiences memebers, the subtleties of her materialism went unnoticed but the excitement Daisy portrayed when she saw his home and the life they could have together and how it bled out of her in a flash, face turning white and expressionless and full of uncertainty when she realized that he was from NEW money, not old money, and that is was also DIRTY money–it was very evident what she was all about. She immediately recanted her love and looked to Tom for security. what a BITCH!

    Loved Tom, Loved Tobey, and LOVED LEO!!!!! He is so brilliant and I love watching that man. I mean, come on…from Django to Gatsby! What a transformation?!? I always knew he was amazing since I first laid eyes on him in Growing Pains haha. Basketball diaries and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape at age at 18-20!? Genuis.

    1. I just don’t understand the enormous backlash and low scores toward this movie. A lot of people already had their minds made up before even seeing this, which is a damn shame. I like that it’s not entirely similar to the past film, although I don’t like sympathizing with Daisy, because who wants to see the same story retold? People don’t get that it’s an INTERPRETATION and not meant to be a replica. It’s Baz Luhrmann…do people not get this????

      Leo is Romeo and Gatsby reincarnated.

  2. I am actually a big fan of Luhrmann’s R&J and Moulin Rouge. There were certainly parts of this film that I enjoyed. Such as, the fine acting by DiCaprio, Edgerton and even Maguire, who I usually find as wooden as a cigar store indian. I also thought the set pieces and costume designs were spectacular.
    However, what did not work for me was the soundtrack which I found completely distracting from the story. If they were determined to have a more modern interpretation why not have musicians cover big band and 20’s jazz tunes? Similarly, the myriad of bizarre camera angles and other directorial flourishes had the effect of jarring this viewer into realizing he was watching a film. The effect of that being I was constantly losing any emotional connection to the characters.
    Could this more modern interpretation have been successful? Perhaps yes, if Baz had simply set the story in a more modern world such as he did with R&J. That is a film I would be interested in watching.
    I am not sure that my interpretation of the novel is quite the same with regards to Gatsby being “style over substance”. Instead I see Gatsby as a man willing do anything and go to any length for the love of a woman. The quote Fitzgerald selected on his title page by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers has always been one of my favorites: “Then wear the gold hat if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Til she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high bouncing lover, I must have you”
    One last quibble, it is a pet peeve of mine when people make statements about how someone who is dead would react to something. I realize Lanahan is Fitzgerald’s granddaughter but it’s not as if she ever met the man. He had passed away many years prior to her birth. Well unless she contacted him during a seance then I guess she could speak about his opinion on matters.

    1. I wrote a prior post anticipating the Great Gatsby that I forgot to link in my review…it was a whole interview about why Luhrmann chose this specific music instead of taking modern artists and remaking 20s classics. Surprisingly, the music didn’t distract me. Did you feel this way about Romeo+Juliet, because that soundtrack is not too dissimilar.

      I like the granddaughters quotes, because she’s still a closer connection than any other critic would have. I haven’t met my grandparents either, but I’ve been told countless stories, as I’m sure she has, to be able to formulate an understanding of them. And with something as famous as Gatsby…I’m sure her opinion is credible. Regardless, it’s just another opinion, but from a more unique source.

      1. No R&J had a modern setting which i wish they had done with this film as well. Or conversely, ditched the modern soundtrack and the majority of the over the top directorial largesse and let the story speak for itself.

  3. Well stated. As you know I was a fan of this picture and you nailed down several of the reasons why. I still maintain that there is so much more going on underneath the surface – themes and critiques that so many people either miss or didn’t appreciate. For me they worked wonderfully. I’m a fan!

    1. I tried to highlight ALL of that in my review…that a lot of research and detail went into making this, and it’s worth appreciating for that alone. This wasn’t carelessly thrown together with 3D to boost ticket sales (I think I read that only 30% of viewers see this in 3D). Glad you liked it too!

      1. Those are probably the same critics who get offended with Tarantino’s outlandish violence or Kubrick’s wackiness…it’s like…you know what’s coming, so anticipate it.

  4. I still haven’t seen this, or read the book, but Baz Lurhmann’s films always look beautiful to me. I hope I get the chance to see this soon.

  5. I agree the soundtrack was not as distracting as I had thought it would be. I think part of the genius of the book is that we never see Gatsby, only from Nick’s unreliable narration. For me, revealing Jay Gatsby in the movie takes a lot of that vital mystery away. Maybe it is unfilmable, but they did a pretty good job, though, especially with the production design. I gave it 7/10

    1. Yeah getting to know his full past takes away the allure and mystery surrounding Gatsby, but it was a glimpse never taken before that filled in all the gaps. Production design and costumes were fantastic…I’ll be very surprised if they don’t win Oscar nods.

  6. This film has really divided critics and bloggers alike. I am still intrigued to see it though as I am quite fond of the book. Plus I am eager to see how Luhrmann handles the racial commentary that the book briefly touches on.

  7. Wooo awesome review! I love how you refer to it as an interpretation rather than an adaption, something I think people tend to overlook. I loved Baz Luhrmann’s version and how great was Joel Edgerton!?

    Great little photo at the bottom, I guess I should check out the 1974 version now.

  8. This is a fantastic write up. I didn’t hate this movie but I also wasn’t really a fan either. Your defense definitely reminded me of a lot of things I did enjoy about the movie though, and maybe I’m just letting the negatives overpower my memory of the film. One thing is undeniable, Leo was brilliant as usual.

    1. It was a film I went in having reservations, because the initial reviews for it weren’t that positive. But I loved the book and I love Luhrmann and Leo, so I went in with an open mind. It has obvious flaws, but the good outweighed the bad for me. I’m glad you liked my review, Jess ^.^

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