“Old dead white guys – that’s all we read!” These words have come from countless students of mine over the past 25 years. While we have worked to change that, some “old white guys,” will always be on high school reading lists. Thousands of teens across the nation read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and for decades their teachers have capped off the unit with a film version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford. Well, move over Redford, DiCaprio and Baz Luhrmann bring us a Gatsby to tantalize and titillate our senses. While Luhrmann makes some odd and aggravating changes to Fitzgerald’s story, he creates a wild, emotionally charged, visually stunning affair that manages to engage, in spite of flaws.
In Luhrmann’s version, Nick Caraway (Toby McGuire) opens the story, as does Fitzgerald’s novel, but Luhrmann puts Nick in an asylum, suffering from the ill-effects of partying too hard and caring too much. At the encouragement of his doctor, Nick pens the tale of Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), a daring dreamer – a man so in love with a woman (Daisy – Carey Mulligan), he drags himself from rags to riches just have her. He’s new money and she’s married to old, so when the two worlds collide, there is a wake of disaster, with Nick and others dragged along for a raucous ride of decadence, deceit and death.
I taught the novel for so many years, I know the story better than I care to, so I found subtle changes made by Luhrmann somewhat distracting, but not nearly as distracting as the hodgepodge of accents attempted and muddled by his cast. I am a bit of a stickler for accents and I didn’t get why everyone, save a few, often sounded Southern. Even DiCaprio struggled at first to find Gatsby’s (a man born in Nebraska) voice. Still, he’s good, especially when it comes to expressing Gatsby’s emotions. While I love Redford, he simply doesn’t have the affecting and expressive range to capture the depth of Fitzgerald’s complex character and DiCaprio does.
With Luhrmann doing what he does visually, strength in his leads is vital, because they have to play against a whirlwind, nay, a tornado of flashy, colorful, wild and wonderful imagery and they manage just fine, especially the men. Australian Joel Edgerton gives us a delightfully despicable Tom Buchanan. I found him strong, fascinating and memorable. Buchanan is a womanizing man, making Daisy suffer through countless affairs – the latest with Myrtle (an underused and perhaps miscast Isla Fisher) the wife of a dirt poor gas station owner and mechanic, Wilson (Jason Clark). The pair lives in the “valley of ashes,” a dismal place, which Luhrmann breathes extraordinary life into from the perfect prose of Fitzgerald. His vision depicts Fitzgerald’s to the letter. True to its title, the valley is a dark contrast to the extravagance of the East and West Eggs of New York where Gatsby and the others reside.
From his dock, Gatsby watches the green light across the bay, dreaming of Daisy, who until Nick her cousin, sets up a rendezvous at his interesting little cottage set in the woods close to Gatsby’s extravagant castle-like abode, thinks Gatsby and their former connection is lost and in the past. The scene in which the two meet feels and looks pleasantly hopeful and DiCaprio delights as he fumbles through this not so chance meeting. Mulligan is oh so pretty and breathy as she speaks and while I wasn’t overwhelmed by her performance I wasn’t underwhelmed either. McGuire manages an innocence in Nick that contrasts greatly to Luhrmann’s decision to place him in an nut house to frame the story.
Luhrmann does at times capture the essence of Fitzgerald’s incredible symbolism, making many, many aspects of his version extremely useful and enjoyable for understanding that aspect of the story, but also quite overwhelming for viewers. He makes some irritating changes – like having Meyer Woldsheim (a shady Jewish businessman) played by a clearly Indian actor, not having Gatsby’s father attend his son’s funeral, instead of just Nick, limiting Jordan Baker, the golf pro and Myrtle Wilson to mere smatterings of screen time. But for me, a lover of the novel, this little things bent or dropped by Luhrmann – like accents, time in key aspects of Myrtle’s character, making Gatsby’s house a castle and putting Nick in a psychiatric hospital and don’t get me started on the music. Still the film held my interest for most of the time, so from me it earns a B-. Luhrmann positively puts on a show.