“All the bright precious things fade so fast…and they don’t come back”
What I Liked:
I read the book a few years ago as I grabbed a tattered copy off of my sister’s bookshelf. Unfortunately, the language and style felt anachronistic to me, so I couldn’t invest myself in the world and the characters. This is not an issue with the movie. This meant that I was free from comparing the movie to the book. As a result, the DiCaprio version stands on its own merits and raises a story, which I initially didn’t care for, to a whole new level. In other words, the movie helped me appreciate the source material and pushed me to revisit it.
The words quoted above are uttered by Daisy towards the start of The Great Gatsby and percolate throughout the remainder of the movie. The words set the tone for the time period and sum up the individual character journeys eloquently. These words also teach a harsh lesson because this is a story of heartbreak. There are no heroes and villains, instead there are only flawed people. The New York of The Great Gatsby affords its denizens dreams of glitz and glamour, but dreams have a habit of not coming true. The movie takes this thread and unravels it delightfully. In a nutshell, it is the story of a man trapped by purpose and consumed by august pretensions in a microcosm of rapturous congregations. It is all merely a ruse to attract a distant glimmer of a hope he let go of years ago. Sadly, he becomes a victim of his own identity and malevolence as he drags the lives of others into tragedy and leaves them in disarray. I won’t call it selfish, but it is powerful, haunting, dark, sad, hurtful, and beautiful in its pain.
Fitzgerald’s writing speaks to you through Baz Luhrmann’s imagery. Sometimes it even comes right at you. However, this movie is sold through its characters and their commanding presence. You will love them, you will hate them, but at all times you will be enthralled by them. It is initially jarring as everything appears unconventional, but you settle into the groove quickly as you acclimatize to the decadence and the pace of the epoch. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to prove he is the best actor of his generation and that he was born to play this role. He is a roller coaster of emotions, charming one second and ready to kill a man the next. Edgerton and Mulligan are equally evocative. Secretly, I adored Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Nick Carraway. I started off not enjoying his voiceover and his recounting of the story. But over the course of the film you start to notice how his voice grows weary from the chaos unfolding around him. From Wall Street upstart to doting friend, his journey is a treat to watch as his world crumbles around him and he is ultimately relegated to the role of a spectator entrenched in other people’s tensions. “Within and Without,” as Nick would say.
The highly ambitious visuals and effects in this film add to the splendor of the story. One could argue that it is all superfluous and adds nothing of value to the proceedings. A mere distraction to take attention away from an otherwise mediocre film. I would contend that without the visuals the story of The Great Gatsby would not be so endearing and enchanting. They imbibe the movie with all the extravagances and sorrows of a classical fairy tale. Moreover the visuals are metaphors strewn all over the place, but they bring the subtleties of Fitzgerald’s writing to the forefront. Lavish parties represent decadence and loneliness; a green light beckons forlorn desires; and the disparity of wealth is covered in thick black smog and the sweat of those less fortunate. The film,unlike the book, isn’t a commentary on the times, but it still manages to register on multiple levels while taking your breath away.
I have to give a special mention to the ending. It was meticulous, sombre and poignant. More importantly, it was silent but, just as Gatsby hoped for his own life, it has a sempiternal impact.
What I Didn’t Like:
I thought that the soundtrack was a mess. Who thought Jay-Z was a good depiction of the era? I enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s crazy mash-ups in Moulin Rouge, but the same audaciousness doesn’t work here. I’m surprised that they couldn’t come up with a surreal remix of more iconic songs from that era. Also, the orchestral score wasn’t that striking either. A few hymns and measures stood out, particularly the lament of Young and Beautiful, but on the whole I felt that the soundtrack was underwhelming.
There is a lot of fast editing as the film weaves in and out of scenes. This is mostly noticeable at the start of the film and settles down as the movie finds its legs. It’s not major gripe, but it wasn’t handled seamlessly and felt a little disorienting, especially with the 3D.
Some interesting characters are sacrificed to keep the focus of the story on the main stars. For example, the excellent Amitabh Bachchan makes his Hollywood debut here but only appears for about 5 minutes. This usually wouldn’t be a problem, but he is very good in those five minutes and is, quite explicitly, a big part of Gatsby’s current manifestation. The same goes for Jordan Baker, who is much more fleshed out in the book.
I fucking hate 3D. This movie made me like it. I don’t like that. There are some scenes which are just beautifully rendered where you actually feel like you are a part of that world and that you’re in the room with these characters as they tear their lives apart. So, I guess this should actually be in the list above.
Overall, this is one director’s vision of a story that has only become more loved through the ages. You will be taken to a different realm and you will be engaged. This is how films should be made. It invokes your imagination and pulls you into the depths of the anguish carried by each of the characters. Visually powerful, expertly designed, thematically refreshing and incredibly well acted.