YEP YEP – “He was the single most hopeful person I’d ever met,” narrates Nick Carraway in the opening moments of Baz Luhrmann’s hugely anticipated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic great American novel, The Great Gatsby.
So, after several months of promos and buzz, I was hopeful I could get past my initial disappointment in the casting of Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan.
She doesn’t sink the ship, because Leonardo DiCaprio is so locked in and on top of his game he makes the love story integral to the payoff of this beloved tale work; even opposite a feminine counterpart, who, while working just as hard, is in over her head – and just not tantalizing enough for this cinematic event.
Too harsh? Sorry – I’m just not down with Mulligan. Haven’t been since the beginning with her. She conveys not one ounce of feminine allure or sexuality; therefore the leap that Gatsby (DiCaprio), or her rugged philandering husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), would drop anchor on her is just not plausible. Ironically, the one film I’ve liked her in, Shame, was about sexual addiction. Somehow her androgynous asexuality worked in her favor in that story.
I would have preferred Jessica Chastain or Emily Blunt as my Daisy. Bringing us to the DiCaprio dilemma. For all of his undeniable star power charm, good looks, and immense talent, he is still more boy on-screen than man. So Blunt or Chastain would have maybe overwhelmed him in Gatsby? We’ll never know.
Was Michelle Williams unavailable? She made a fantastic Marilyn Monroe. Probably too much to ask that we get her as Daisy Buchanan.
Nonetheless, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a spectacle ($105m budget!), as anyone who knows his visual operatic style would have guessed (see Moulin Rouge or Romeo & Juliet). Once you get past the director’s hyper active editing style and Jay-Z musical montage posturing, the film settles in to a relatively conventional love story narrative, glued together completely by DiCaprio – with admirable help from Aussie actor Edgerton as his testosterone socialite sparring partner.
For obvious reasons, it’s a gigantic challenge to adapt a novel as highly regarded as The Great Gatsby. This one is infinitely more entertaining than Jack Clayton’s 1974 Robert Redford snoozer. Both had superb source material to work from – the ’74 Gatsby screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola; Luhrmann’s co-written by Craig Pearce – but that doesn’t always translate to success. Redford’s Gatsby sagged where Leo’s sizzles.
The underdog in me has always related to Jay Gatsby, the self-made man. The outsider. The rags to riches story of validation and acceptance. It is a truly American story, perfectly set at a time in our country (1922) when family name and inherited prestige put all others less genetically fortunate at a distinct disadvantage in the arena of wealth and social-climbing.
Luhrmann and DiCaprio nail that.
Toby Maguire’s performance as Nick Carraway is also darn good, evolving organically as the movie spills forward like a magnum of Dom paid for on someone else’s credit card. The moment when Nick tells Gatsby “They’re a rotten crowd – you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” brings the film in to a beautiful clarity. All the work that DiCaprio has done as Gatsby to weave together the sense of longing and clawing and pretending to belong to a world he was not born in to. The hope that he could recapture the lightning in a bottle love that he had with Daisy – it all crescendos in a literary moment expertly delivered by Maguire and exquisitely received by Leo.
Here is how Fitzgerald followed up the moment:
“I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.”
A great American novel.
A very entertaining Hollywood film.