I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school. I didn’t particularly dislike it, but the fact that I had to write three essays over the green light and its symbolism didn’t make me like it either. My anticipation for this film was little; I like Leonardo DiCaprio well enough, but Baz Luhrmann as director and rapper Jay-Z as the man in charge of the soundtrack for a film set in the 1920s didn’t fly well with me. Despite this, I re-read the book two days before I saw the film and decided that I liked it a lot more this time around since I wasn’t having to read it for school. I became anxious…would the film do the book justice? Thankfully, I had little to worry about, as The Great Gatsby is a fine adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic.
This story is told from the point of Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, who moves to Long Island in New York, where he is the neighbor of the alluring, illustrious Jay Gatsby, a man whose past is as mysterious as his parties are extravagant. Across the bay lives Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), a man born into a rich family who is known to be in an affair with a woman from New York. As the summer goes on, Nick and Gatsby develop a friendship that leads to Gatsby revealing a secret: he is in love with Daisy and has been for five years. When Gatsby and Daisy reunite and pick up their relationship where it left off five years previously, chaos ensues as relationships become strained, accidents happen, and hope seems forever lost.
I hated the first 45 minutes of this movie. Everything seemed to be thrown into my face, one person after one event after one party after another, and I grew sick of it. The rap music fuels the parties, which I didn’t especially care for either. Of course, I can’t sit here and be unfair about all of this; every one of these aspects are results of creative decisions on the part of the director that make sense and probably worked for other people. This was the “Roaring 20s,” and all of this fast-paced delivery and bright color and extravagant music helps to emphasize the prosperity and free-spiritedness of the time. No, rap music wasn’t around in the 1920s, but I doubt that the inclusion of music from the 1920s would have communicated the wildness of these parties as well as the rap music does in this day and age, nearly 100 years later. I recognize all of this…but I just didn’t like it, and I was worried that the rest of the film was going to present itself in the same way.
But it didn’t. Once we become acquainted with Gatsby and move into his relationships with Nick, Daisy, and Tom, the film becomes a character study that I couldn’t get enough of. DiCaprio as Gatsby is perfect – he captures all of the optimism, all of the warmth, and all of the anxiety expressed by the character in the book, never going too far in an attempt to make the character believable. The other standout performance comes from Carey Mulligan as Daisy, who appeared on screen just the way I had imagined her in my head whilst reading. Tobey Maguire also does well as Nick Carraway, though I must admit that I was worried going into the film knowing that the story was told from his perspective…I had nightmares about Peter Parker doing the voice-over while we watched Gatsby throw his parties. But Maguire did fine and was thankfully not channeling his inner Peter Parker, though you could argue that he never did that in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films either…ha! There’s not much to be said about Joel Edgerton’s performance as Tom Buchanan except that he did an admirable job and that I liked the way he played the character.
Having read the book less than 48 hours in advance of seeing the film, I can personally attest to its accuracy to the original book, with much of the dialogue being directly quoted from Fitzgerald’s text. In fact, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that was significantly changed from the book, but the film still managed to not be a slave to the text, making itself stand apart as its own work of art while still capturing the themes of the novel. The symbolic green light, the light at the end of Daisy’s pier that Gatsby recognizes as the hope of being reunited with his lost love, is more present in the film than it is in the book, with it making several appearances throughout the duration of the movie. What’s more is that we hear the green light as well; every time it flashes in our view, we hear a single note swell from the instrumental score (composed by Craig Armstrong). One of my favorite parts of this film, though, is at the very end when we hear this note swell without seeing the green light – we’re hearing Gatsby’s flicker of hope that everything might still be alright in his future with Daisy, despite all that has just happened. It’s a powerful motif that resonates in both Gatsby and in the audience. The overall look of the film was dynamic and interesting, which I liked too.
Had the first 45 minutes of this film been different, so might my rating, but that doesn’t mean that this wasn’t a great film well worth your time. In all reality, I think that I’m in the minority of people who don’t care for the music in this film, with the obvious exception of Craig Armstrong’s instrumental score (which, sadly, isn’t being released as a purchasable album) and, curiously, a jazz-ified 1920s rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” that fits into the film quite well. DiCaprio’s performance is fantastic (though, sadly, I don’t think he’ll walk away with an Oscar for this one either), as is Ms. Mulligan’s, and it’s so true to the original themes of the book that any fan of Fitzgerald’s original novel should definitely give this a watch.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language