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The Great Gatsby Review: Love is Blindness

Twice in The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway tells us as part of the burgeoning events that unfold, he often feels like an outsider and insider at the same time, both watching it happen and living it. Such is the world Baz Luhrmann’s created in his visually stunning and emotionally poignant adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel about love and loss in the Jazz Age. All at once the audience is swept up in the director’s perfect assimilation of music, 3D movie magic and prose while still glued firmly in a multiplex seat.

Based on what is arguably considered the great American novel, The Great Gatsby finds Midwestern writer wannabe Carraway (Toby Maguire) moving to New York City in the early 1920s to pursue a career selling bonds in the now booming stock market, while trying to find something to tell a story about. He sets up in a small cottage in West Egg, just across the water from his second cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), a former Yale classmate of Nick’s. The two and their young daughter seem to live a lavish, carefree life on the sprawling estate. One night at dinner, Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki)—a pro-golfer and frequent guest—reveals that Nick’s cottage lies in the shadow of the enigmatic host Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose parties are legendary for attracting all of New York City and playing host to loads of uncivilized refinement.

Tobey1One night Nick receives a rare invitation to one of Gatsby’s house parties, something unheard of by the other guests who pile into the estate by the carload while flappers dance and jazz rages on through clouds of smoke and showers of glitter. There, where old family money mingles with the nouveaux riche, he meets the enigmatic character who so many claim to know the secrets of, but whom so few have set eyes upon. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that keeps Nick in the company of champagne fountains, senators, gangsters and stars as he recounts his friend’s story to the audience.

As his journey into the New York City summer social scene deepens, Nick is asked to keep a number of secrets. The intersection of Nick’s secrets, and each characters’ struggle to chase their own truth amidst the backdrop of debauchery induced by the failure of prohibition leads to a spiraling conclusion that, if you’re familiar with the story, you already know.

Baz Luhrmann was the director born to adapt this particular piece.  I just can’t imagine it in anyone else’s hands. It’s no secret Baz has a penchant for ostentatious visuals, and the stunning 3D that he shot in serves Gatsby well in creating the perfect spectacle to reflect the heightened nights of the era. Often deliciously overwhelming, Baz fills each frame with far more detail than the eyes or mind can comprehend in a single viewing. From the changing schemes that blossom with color either in the sun or under the glowing party lights of Gatsby’s manor, to the sepia-toned flashbacks of WWI, 1922 New York City is alive and vibrant in a way previously only known in Fitzgerald’s pages.

Just as much as his lavish visuals, another trademark of any Baz film is his use of music, starting with the director’s first outing Strictly Ballroom. Executive Producer Jay-Z oversaw the soundtrack for Gatsby, and fused Luhrmann’s New York with some of his own hip hop, a few jazzed up covers from Beyonce, Andre 3000 and Jack White, and unexpected treats from Sia and Gotye. True, this isn’t the first time Baz has blended popular music to contemporize a period setting, but his successful record definitely repeats in Gatsby where Jay-Z’s lyrics and beats help stylize the decadence of the flapper and bootlegger lifestyle foreign to modern eyes.

Whether it’s Desiree’s tender ballad “Kissing You” in Romeo + Juliet or the collaborative phenomenon of “Lady Marmalade” in Moulin Rouge!, Baz’s musical themes stand equal with character and setting as his tools of storytelling. Lana Del Rey’s haunting “Young and Beautiful” has earned its place in the upper echelon of great movie themes, deeply affecting from the first moments you hear those melancholy notes that echo throughout the story. As fellow soundtrack contributor Florence + the Machine’s last album Ceremonials perfectly reflected the hopeless longing of Virginia Woolf’s letter, Del Rey and Luhrmann have penned and produced a track that so perfectly captures the raw essence of Fitzgerald’s life and times, the ever-present theme of longing for and questioning love at the same time, it’s hard to imagine the story without it.

CareyThe mostly established ensemble that populate Luhrmann’s Long Island for the summer each delivers something special to their character’s journey. Maguire’s likable innocence, helped by the fact that he probably drinks from the same pool of eternal youth frequented by Paul Rudd and Gabrielle Union, and naiveté make Nick’s inevitable fall to disillusionment and near madness all the more visceral. With one look from the eyes that follow all of the story’s events for us, Maguire gives us more empathy for the worst deeds of his friends. Through his recounted words, we learn the truth of Gatsby’s rise to fame and fortune, and are still left to wonder how much Carraway’s affection for his friend has clouded his judgment of the situation.

Never before do I recall seeing a literary character so perfectly brought to life than DiCaprio’s take on the titular social climber. From his charismatic first meeting with Carraway, to his secretive phone calls and seductive glances through well-lit windows, DiCaprio maintains a sense of not just mystery, but fascination with the almost century-old character. His eloquent nature and the tender way in which he romances Daisy seduce you just as much as the wealth and power equated with his character from the moment we step through the gates to his first party.

Edgerton infuses Tom with a sense of unbalanced restraint, keeping you afraid of who he might raise his hand to, but always hoping his bark outweighs his bite. If anything is lost in Luhrmann’s adaptation, it’s newcomer Debikci’s Jordan, and her tenuous romance with Nick, but there’s a quiet reserve that makes her character undoubtedly watchable if even mostly expository in this piece. But, the real shining star is Carey Mulligan’s Daisy, the axis around whom the entire story’s events revolve. Never in any other Gatsby adaption has the tragedy of love been so personified as here in Mulligan’s seamless performance. With a glance from her bright eyes, she takes us from the ecstasy of comfort and freedom of the party scene to the agony of her heart’s truth in seconds.

See this movie. See it in 3D. See it with people you care about. Though, keep in mind, there’s a reason Fitzgerald’s works don’t make it to screen often. It’s the same reason Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will divide audiences—the story’s a downer. The hero doesn’t save the day. Love doesn’t conquer all. In Fitzgerald’s literary world, reflective of his own life, there are no happy endings. There’s a truth in that destined to be lost on escapist moviegoers. But I hope at least a few of you will feel the same love I have for this film. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy stories are all the same; it’s the sad ones that are special. Just because there’s no happy ending doesn’t make The Great Gatsby any less of a love story. After all, as Jordan reminds us, that’s why Jay did it. He threw those parties, night after night, just hoping one day she’d come.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

One Comment

  1. Great review! Been looking forward to this release for a while, and while I am eager to see the movie, I’m not sure what my reaction is going to be to the story. At least when reading the book there’s a nice span of time where things go well for the characters before… ka-plunk!

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