It came out in May. I know you saw the trailers, the television spots. You know which one I mean- the dainty Carey Mulligan whips her blonde head toward the camera and blinks her doe eyes. “I’m certainly glad to see you again.” Dramatic pause, camera cut to Leonardo DiCaprio, his face dripping wet with rain. “I’m certainly glad to see you as well.”
This is the new adaptation of one of my favorite books, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It’s a classic work, considered by many to be the “Great American Novel” about the great American Gatsby. Due to the symbolism and heavy significance of the work, I thought director Baz Luhrmann would miss the mark based on his past project outcomes.
While a lot of the film was over-the-top, intentionally or unintentionally, I think that for this particular piece, over-the-top is good. I’ll explain why.
We’ll start at the beginning. The plot tells the story of Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic millionaire with a secret past, as narrated by Nick Carraway, a witness to the tale.
The book just lets Nick narrate all over the place, but the screenwriter must have felt that an excuse was needed to have a voice-over and sneak some spoken prose in there, so they threw in a frame story. Nick is seeking help for alcoholism, and writes Gatsby’s story as a means of catharsis. As someone who writes screenplays in her free time, I understand the feeling that an excuse was needed, and I almost even like this. Anything to avoid the clichéd, idiotic “character writes of their experiences and then passes it off to the real-life author who sells it as fiction” frame story.
In his story, Nick is young and he has just moved to New York. He lives next door to a millionaire in a shining palace. A millionaire who throws parties the entire city attends. Somehow, virtually no one has met him. “Gatsby? What Gatsby?” Exactly.
The overblown scale of the parties is (shockingly!) something that met with criticism upon the movie’s initial release. This is difficult to understand since the entire point of a Gatsby party is that it’s ridiculously large-scale and expensive. The critics who didn’t like this insisted that Luhrmann was selling classic literature with its spectacle and not the merit of its content.
Arguably, if any classic can be effectively sold with its spectacle without interfering with its message, it’s Gatsby. I’ll get back to that later.
Nick’s cousin is the sweet and beautiful Daisy Buchanan, wife of adulterous and bigoted moron Tom Buchanan. It’s difficult to figure out how the happy couple ended up together. When Nick meets Gatsby, Gatsby makes a request: he wants Nick to arrange a meeting with Daisy Buchanan.
Wow, from all the “forbidden love” marketing for this film, we sure didn’t see that one coming.
Gatsby and Daisy have a secret past together. This drives the plot for the rest of the movie.
Now let’s look at the actors.
Tobey Maguire is chiefly known, of course, for his performance as Peter Parker in the early-to-mid-2000s “Spiderman”. He is no stranger to staring in Academy Award caliber pieces, as 2003’s Seabiscuit, though ultimately fruitless, prompted a handful of nominations. As for his performance in Gatsby, it could be exaggerated at times. At certain points, I noted almost ridiculous pauses in his speech. Still, he did a good job playing someone on our level and pulling the audience in, and his eyes are gorgeous (albeit distractingly blue).
Carey Mulligan is a British actress, and when she was cast in the film my biggest concern was whether or not she’d translate over as an American icon. Fans of the popular British TV show Doctor Who may recognize her as Sally Sparrow, the heroine of the infamous episode “Blink.” I feel that in this role, she did tremendously well, and while it’s unlikely she will win an Oscar due to her status as a relatively new face in the movies, a nomination is very possible.
Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated for Best Actor three times and he has no trophy to show for it. For someone widely regarded as one of the best actors of his generation, this is limited credentials and I think he deserves a little golden statue as proof to himself that he really does deserve all that praise.
The contemporary score was an interesting choice, and while it was highly doubted by some, I had faith that they would end up pulling it off. After all, the incredible level of energy perfectly encapsulates the time that the music means to represent, and elements of music from the ’20s are incorporated into the soundtrack. The whole thing sounds incredibly crisp and new, which is the entire point of Gatsby. So much of the story’s weight is from its relevance in society, and its significant impact is heightened by the feeling that even though it takes place nearly a hundred years ago, it heralds a fresh and exciting time.
The costume and set design are each as lavish and spectacular as one would expect from a Baz Luhrmann film. Expect another nomination here- it’s breathtaking.
So, do I think that Gatsby is a modern masterpiece? Do I think that it will get Best Picture? I’m not sure. There are plenty of movies in the Oscar lineup that haven’t even come out yet. As far as predictions, we’ll have to wait and see. But maybe the romantic in me wants them to win. Maybe I feel like the story is good enough to carry them through to Best Picture. And maybe Leo DiCaprio will stop pouting all the time if he finally wins an Oscar.