I read The Great Gatsby when I was fifteen years old. I had two thoughts about it that have stayed with me:
1) “Everyone in this book is nauseating and now I am sad,” and
2) “Wouldn’t Tobey Maguire be perfect as Nick Carraway?”
Well both of these thoughts were consummated tonight. After months of waiting, wondering and debate about it, I have finally seen Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Gatsby. Let’s face it- I was bound to. Even if I had been told it was the worst film ever made, it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have seen it. Bad or good, it piqued my curiosity.
So far it seems Gatsby is receiving mixed reviews. From what I’ve read in the papers and been sent by my friends the criticism has been harsh, with the oft-drawn conclusion that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel may be unadaptable for the screen. There has also been repeated shots at Tobey Maguire’s narration (“This movie needs more of Tobey Maguire’s resonant baritone,” said no one ever) as well as Fitzgerald’s text flying all over the screen like a glorified Cliffs Notes… but in gorgeous 3-D!
I went into the theater not sure what to expect. The worst case scenario was a melodramatic, embarrassing clusterfuck of a movie. Fortunately Luhrmann’s Gatsby was not that. Did I wish some things were different about it? Oh yeah. Oh my God yeah, without a doubt. I want that pink suit Gatsby wore so I can set it on fire. There are some other things I’ll purge from my memory as well.
But is it as terrible as critics have made it out to be? Well, at the moment I’d say no.
On the other hand, would I ever watch Gatsby again? I would also say no.
The reason I’m saying this is because the film fulfilled its purpose, at least for me. The main complaint has been it isn’t true to its source material, too obsessed with its own spectacle for its own good. Another has been that unlike Luhrmann’s previous films, such as Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) (which I re-reviewed in March) it doesn’t have emotional resonance. It just leaves you feeling empty.
I agree with that, mostly because the characters are so hard to know and root for in the first place. And I did feel empty once it was over. I can’t deny that.
But thing is, I felt the same way about the book. I understood its intent, symbolism and themes, and my fifteen-year-old mind crumpled beneath them. Gatsby is at heart just a really sad story about a man whose happiness solely depends on one person loving him. The tragedy is that this rests on the shoulders of a woman (more of a girl, really) who has no idea what she wants and can’t make up her mind, mostly because she has no convictions or substance.
Watching someone like Leonardo DiCaprio play Gatsby was absolutely nerve-wracking. You get the sense that his love for Daisy (Carey Mulligan) makes him physically ill, and as most people have experienced a mind-draining love (or at least a crush) during their lifetime, it’s hard to watch. You also want it to stop. Or at least I did. The sequence where he meets Daisy for tea at Carraway’s house is like watching someone have a panic attack before Prom. At one point he breaks a clock with his bare hands. When he tries to put it back together it’s even worse.
Since most of us have read the book we know where the story is heading. In my case I anticipated it, feeling that Gatsby’s death was a release more than a tragedy. The unresolved problem is who is left behind- namely Carraway- the only person who takes Gatsby’s absence to heart. Although Maguire’s Carraway isn’t given much to do he wasn’t as bland as I thought he would be. I actually identified with him, being a perpetual outsider and a third wheel in other characters’ extramarital affairs. I understood his frustration: empathy can get you into trouble. You see a lot. You learn a lot. You figure out life isn’t fair and other people’s misfortunes fall heavy upon you.
As for the ginormous parties that have been advertised in trailers, TV spots and internet ads for the past several months, they’re definitely there. It’s clear that Gatsby must have an insanely high electric bill and a huge glitter/confetti budget. But the parties aren’t what the film is about. Neither is the love story or its dizzying visuals. Instead it reminds me of a Plato quote, “Love is a grave mental illness,” as well as the futility of dwelling on the past.
It also reminds me of a new quote the Internet has supplied: “Ain’t no party like a Gatsby party ’cause a Gatsby party don’t stop until at least two people are dead and everyone is disillusioned with the Jazz Age as a whole.”
Seriously. That’s a real quote and you can buy a t-shirt version of it here. I’m considering it.