The Great Gatsby is a transparently indulgent, excessive, grandiose, beautiful, bedazzling and a deeply sad film. I loved each and every single minute of it. The 3D is playful, the costumes are flamboyant, the visual effects are astonishing, the shots are vividly composed and the anachronistic music is resplendent. The green light and all that Baz makes up for a glorious celebration of a literary classic. This film is mesmerizing on so many levels I don’t know where to begin.
Let’s begin with the period it is set in. The 1920’s. You’d be making a mistake (of the many mistakes you could make of watching this film incorrectly), if you think it is “set” during the roaring twenties. That’s just the setting. The film is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, often remembered as the Great American Novel. There is a reason why it is called so. Every great thing is timeless. It resonates now, as it would back then. What resonates? The words? The story? The themes? What is it exactly that separates a well-written book from a great one? I think it is what it says about the human condition. An observation that holds true.
This film version is not exactly a definitive or quintessential adaptation but it is the best one. Moreover, it is better than being a mere adaptation; it is a cinematic interpretation. Baz Luhrmann, who took his own Moulin Rouge! (2001) as a template, has always opulently presented unfulfilled romances. Beginning the film with a dizzying theatricality and later slowing things down to unleash the melodrama. His Romeo + Juliet (1996) is a thing of beauty, Strictly Ballroom (1992) is as underrated as they come. It only makes sense that he would bring Gatsby to the screen in all its post-modern glory.
Luhrmann works with Leonardo DiCaprio for the second time and what we get is a true movie star performance. It captures the essence of the book with the mysterious introduction of the hero (almost half an hour into the film) only to reward us with close-ups in the final act that make him more of an enigma than he was before the film began. If you need one reason to watch the film, make that DiCaprio’s excellent performance.
Carey Mulligan is the perfect Daisy. Tobey Maguire plays the narrator, Nick Carraway who is also responsible for the biggest departure from the novel as he is shown to be the writer. This framing device irked me at first but later when Fitzgerald’s prose was being quoted and literally pasted on screen for us to see, I really didn’t mind. Amitabh Bachchan steals the scene he is in with his swag and iconic voice. With that voice, any accent could pass off.
The soundtrack of The Great Gatsby is so good it deserves another review. I had been obsessively listening to the songs before I saw the film. Some new songs, some old, some covered by new artists. The handpicked selections have resonance with the novel (Florence Welch screaming “Now there's green light in my eyes” in Over the Love). My ears were so accustomed to these sounds that I noticed how beautifully the score is composed by Craig Armstrong. The music from these songs is rearranged to become movie music. Some songs announce their arrival before they appear or after they have appeared they leave the fumes for us to bask in it. My favorite being the stunning ballad by Lana Del Rey called Young and Beautiful. Not to mention the fireworks synched to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Exaggeration cannot be treated as shallow. The film could be mistaken as fluff, a show off. The same way our response to the titular character can be misdirected. Jay Gatsby believes in an empty fantasy: that love can be bought. What’s terrifying about this, isn’t that he just believes in it but acts on it elaborately and lives it every second of his life. There is no other character in the history of literature, music or film that could better embody the illusion of worldly possessions and romantic love. It makes hope look like a beautiful deception. It makes fools appear divine. Flaws? Yeah right.
While this film tries to unearth the essence of the novel and the characters. While it demonstrates Baz Luhrmann’s literary, visual and aural indulgences, what The Great Gatsby ends up offering is a giddy mosaic of cinematic magic.