Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Too Great For the Big Screen?

Hello all, 

Normally, movie reviews aren't my gig but that may change depending on how this one goes. Please comment below and follow the blog (to the right-->). 

Everyone agrees that movies made about books are always worse than the book itself (see Harry Potter.) In fact, most people go into these movies with low expectations since the eloquence and depth that can be written a book is so often replaced by special effects and plot line tangents to sell tickets. 

It's a weird relationship between books and movies, almost paradoxical. Movies gross millions more than books do and are more widely seen than books are read. Yet, as a culture, we frown upon these observations. They illustrate the apathy that has defined the modern age. As technology has boomed, fine art has busted. The war between comfort and control ended with the invention of electricity and has become almost ancient history. 

Why do I bring this up? Because, ironically, it is the message of The Great Gatsby. If Fitzgerald was anything, he was a social critic. As evident throughout Gatsby, the glitz and glamour of Jay Gatsby is meaningless. He has all the money and popularity in the world and yet is empty. 

Thus, Baz Luhrmann had an impossible task. He had to make an expensive movie which contained some of the most prominent stars of the 21st century and convey the message that consumerism is bad. He had to write a script based on one of the top five most acclaimed authors ever from his most acclaimed book. Not just that, but certain lines from that book had to be included but not too many words since then it would be cheating. Oh and if that weren't enough, everyone wanted him to fail and, even if he didn't, it was still going to be worse than the book.

I could not imagine a more difficult project to take on. Gatsby is long enough to make a movie about and short enough so that omitted scenes would be noticeable. It was permissible for Harry Potter to omit chapters, if not whole sections, of each book. Heck, it would have been a bad movie if the Potter franchise did use every sceneEvery word and every movement of these characters had to be intentional. 

Here's another caveat: intelligence. Lurhamann couldn't assume everyone had even read the book, let alone studied it in their literary analysis classes. He had to make the characters relatable and predictable so your average movie watcher won't get lost in metaphors. But, he had to cater to the "english class" audience as well, as those voices would be the loudest. He had to add depth to these characters. 
Thinking about it, I don't know how anyone could make this movie and satisfy all its necessary conditions. There is just too much here to deal with, and too many different types of people to please. Maybe Gatsby isn't meant for the big screen anyway. 

My guess it was this kind of thinking which motivated Lurhamann to make the risky decisions he had to make. He was going to piss someone off, so why not do it in style?

Style is a good word to describe the movie. Many called it overwhelming, and from the start of the movie, you could see why. The lights weren’t just bright; they were overexposed. The clothes weren’t just colorful; put together, they created a rainbow. The characters weren’t just vivid; they were animated. Every detail of the movie was over the top. To draw an analogy, it would be like eating the frosting of a cake.

And it wasn’t just the setting and clothes. It was also the characters. Jay Gatsby needed to be perfectly flawed and brilliantly naïve. He needed to be glamorous yet seemingly wise. Most of all, he needed to be recognizable. If the audience was truly going to be enamored, immediately, by Jay Gatsby then Lurhamann had only one choice. He needed to be Leonardo DiCaprio.

If Gatsby needed to be glamorous, then Nick had to be real. To cast a Nick, he needed to be like us: overwhelmed, excited, and most of all, curious of Gatsby. We will get to interpretation later, but Toby Maguire was, if nothing else, relatable.

Of course, Tom is the easiest character to cast: greedy, snobby, self-interested rich, power hungry, villainous bastard. Basically, any guy in Hollywood can fit that role (jokes, jokes). Joel Edgerton was probably the biggest no name of the production which is saying something because he has been in Star Wars and Zero Dark Thirty. Nonetheless, for a guy with little experience playing a big role, he was a good Tom for what Lurhamann was looking for.

Which brings us to the question, what was Lurhamann looking for? (We will get to Daisy later). Like I said above, Gatsby needed to be followed to a “t” but also interpreted differently, so that he wasn’t copying. That was the above all goal. But, possibly the one good thing that Lurhamann had going for him was that he could interpret Gatsby almost any way possible. While being one of the most recognized books of all time, it is also one of the most debated. What does the green light mean? Is Gatsby a hero? Did Tom ever really love Daisy?

For me, Lurhamann revealed his interpretation is his soundtrack. (As a side note, if this movie does not win best soundtrack of the year, and if Lana Del Rey does not win best song in a movie, then the academy got it wrong.)
The mix of 1920’s jazz and modern day rap, to the eye, seems odd. One does not mix two distinct genres with very different stories and expressive tones. Yet, in the movie, is the style which Lurhamann uses. You feel the historical awe of the Golden Age and the excitement of the beats of the 21st century. A rush of different yet positive emotions is felt throughout your movie experience, especially during the party scenes. In a way, you feel like a member of the party when you hear the music. It is meant to feel that way.

Lurhamann interprets the start of the book, where Gatsby throws the magnificent party and when Nick first moves to New York, as a circus of new experiences- magnificent if not overwhelming. That’s exactly what he gives us.

And yet, as is obvious by the soundtrack, Lurhamann also takes the movie seriously, including the plot line. One of the critiques of the movie is that the plot has been sacrificed for exploiting the glitz of Gatsby. That is completely false.

He gives us the melodramatic “Over the Love” by Florence and the Machine when Gatsby has failed at getting Daisy. He gives us the intensely introspective “Kill and Run” when Daisy kills Myrtle. He gives us an orchestra of 1920’s soft music to magnify the feelings of Gatsby and Daisy and of Gatsby in general.

But there is one song, which deserves all the credit for this interpretation of The Great Gatsby. Not only is Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever performed, but it is also displays the heart of the conflict which Lurhamann highlights. Lurhamann meshes two important themes from the book into the center of the film: the inability to recreate the past and the desire to be comfortable rather than satisfied. Both concepts are exemplified in the song and both concepts are focused in the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy.

The chorus and basic premise of the song is a question: will you still love me when I am no longer young and beautiful? This question can be divided into two parts, each of which relates to the concepts, which Lurhamann presents. The first is the “no longer” part. We all grow old, change and, at some point, die. Will you love me when I am about to die? Ironically, this seems to be a question more for Gatsby more than for Daisy.

Daisy, at one point in the movie, says “I wish I had done everything with you” where “you” refers to Gatsby. What she is saying, namely, is that she wishes to have lived her life with Gatsby so that, now, they could recount memories of the past with each other as well as create new ones in the present. She has accepted time’s role.

Yet it is Gatsby who wishes to erase five years. He wishes to recreate them, in a perfect house with unlimited money and everything either of them could want. It is not that Gatsby does not want to grow old with Daisy, but that is not his concern in the movie. He wants to stay young and beautiful forever.

The second part of the chorus, and premise of the song, is the “young and beautiful” part. This is focused on Daisy rather than on Gatsby. Clearly, Gatsby is attracted to Daisy for real reasons. He loves her beauty, her grace, and her style. He loves her happiness and wants to share (all the good sappy stuff.) But, Daisy is much more mysterious, both as a character and in terms of her relationship with Gatsby.

This is a good time to return to the casting of Daisy. This was undoubtedly the hardest role to cast because, simply put, she is the main character of Lurhamann’s interpretation. There is no way around it: the entire plot and each character’s interactions depends on Daisy Buchannan. She had to walk the line between mysterious and naïve. As a member of the audience, Daisy had to be a character you never really wondered about, until you realized it was too late for you to start. She is the lynchpin of the plot, but no one could realize it.

This is why Lurhamann had to cast it perfectly. Anyone too recognizable, like DiCaprio, and the audience is already putting symbols and labels on her which means she is noticed. Anyone new, and the audience is eyeing her skeptically. No, she had to bring a name which was only recognizable by name, as opposed to performance. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Carey Mulligan.

You have seen the name in passing. If you are a true movie geek, then you may have seen Pride and Prejudice or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. She shined in these roles but neither of those movies are going to trigger your memory when watching Gatsby. No, she had to be fresh but professional.

Taking that into account, you know realize how her casting had a major influence on Lurhamann’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby. Daisy did love Gatsby, but not because he was beautiful in the way that Gatsby was enamored with Daisy. She loved the glamour, the mystery, and the comfortable lifestyle, which she was provided. Where Gatsby was looking for eternal satisfaction, Daisy was looking for a worry free life. Is it any surprise she chose Tom?

What started as a movie review has turned into a plot analysis! No, here is a summary. The Great Gatsby was a failure, since any interpretation of the book was going to a failure. Yet, in this mess of glitter and lighting, Lurhamann created meaning. He recreated the magic everyone felt when reading the book, even if it was for a brief moment.

For me, it was when Nick uttered the last line of the movie, and of the book, which made me realized why Lurahmann did The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s last line, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” is timeless. And, I guess that is the point. Lurahmann’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby is just as much of a critique of the 1920’s as it is of the 21st century. We have become so comfortable with our apathetic lives that we didn’t even realize that someone just made a blockbuster movie criticizing extravagance.

So, go ahead, destroy the movie. Tell me it fails to reach the power the book gave us. Tell me DiCaprio was an uncomfortable lead or that Nick was too meek. Tell me that Lurhamann used too much glitter.

It was an impossible movie to make. And Lurhamann did a damn good job with it. I qualify The Great Gatsby as a must see movie and should be nominated for best movie of the year when award season hits.


  1. Baz Luhrmann did not do a good job with this movie. This is not an impossible movie to make. In fact, it has been made before and it has been made better (look at Robert Redford and the Francis Ford Coppola version). Luhrmann is all style and no substance. The problem with this is that he has bad style. This was a horrible movie because it was poorly written and poorly filmed. It was trashy. There is no need to place CGI clouds in the sky. normal clouds work perfectly fine. Above all though, the soundtrack has to be the worst part of the movie. When you put "I can't stop" dubstep into the great gatsby, how can you expect to take this movie seriously. All of the exposition in this film came from newspapers swirling onto the screen telling me something happened. The rest of the time, they just danced around. The only awards that this movie should get nominated for are razzies. Luhrmann will have a great time at that awards ceremony because he will sweep every single category. This will easily be the worst movie of the year.

  2. If you think Robert Redford's version was better than this one, you have poor choice in movie taste. It is certainly not viewed that way in ANY circle of movie critics or fans. All of your criticisms of Lurhamann are criticisms of his INTERPRETATION of Gatsby but I already said that his interpretation is what allowed the movie to be made interesting in the first place. It seems like your alternative is to have a strict word for word play.

    It's clear you don't work for the academy awards...

  3. If you enjoyed this movie even slightly, you have the worst taste in movies. Luhrmann (and its spelled Luhrmann) decided to use excessive CGI, shitty music. This would be fine if there was a decent script. However, Luhrmann hoped that the audience wouldn't notice that the story was awful. In your case, it worked flawlessly, but for most people it did not. I am well aware that I don't work for the academy awards, but how is that an argument when you don't either. Anyways, Baz Luhrmann basically did have a strict word for word interpretation of the book when he put most of the words from the book on the screen

  4. I knew exactly what to expect when walking into the movie. I had seen Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. Everyone who says that Luhrmann overdid the movie and used this devine athmosphere to appleal to the Jersey Shore watching general public, simply doesn't understand how this person makes movies.

    Obviously he had to simplify some of the plot and tragically the character of Jordan Baker was not given as much attention as I would have wished, but a movie made off a book is no more than an personal interpretation. What you see on the screen is no more and no less than what Baz Luhrmann had in his mind when watching the movie. Therefore I wouldn't dare calling the movie a failure since it never even attempted to objectively visualize what was written.

    I generally agree with your opinion on the soundtrack but I simply don't like Lana del rey. And the melody of "Young and Beautiful" consists of two notes. Just saying. Florence's song is by far the best one in the movie especially considering its placement in the plot.

    And I don't think that the Great Gatsby is a social critique at all. If you look at the life he and his wife lived, it would be very paradoxial for him to critizise exactly what he stood for.

    Peace and love.