Nice to see you again, old sport.
When you sit and think about the character of Jay Gatsby, there is never a simple answer to define him and his purpose in The Great Gatsby. Some people have cited him as a post-modern interpretation of Romeo And Juliet, in the aspect that the character is going through a romantic struggle that always ends in nothing but tragedy. Others have viewed him as a representation of the roaring twenties, as a pioneer who emboldens and defines the industrial image of the 1920’s and their status as they faded away into the 1930’s. Others see him more like an enigma, an image of the upper class and the bleak loneliness that comes with it. Whatever you believe to see, Jay Gatsby is no simple character. For all we know, he could be one or none of these things. Or all of them.
The fact that this film knows, respects, and acknowledges that makes me appreciate this movie, and hope that others can appreciate it too through DiCaprio’s performance and the mythology being revisited here. Those who read the book should already know the story: a 1920’s bond salesman and struggling writer named Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves into New York city, where he learns of his rich next door “neighbor” named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
I put “neighbor” in quotations because Nick never actually sees Jay Gatsby in the beginning of the film. All he ever sees of his estranged, self-secluded neighbor is a man looking behind some curtains and holding lavish parties in his mansion in the cool of midnight. All he ever hears of him is scandalous rumors and war stories about a man many people haven’t met either. The more Nick lives in his lonely little house, the more he questions if Mr. Gatsby even exists.
Eventually, Mr. Gatsby of course does introduce himself, but not as the host of the party, but rather, as a humble servant who offers Nick a drink on a plate of beverages. As Nick becomes more familiar with Mr. Gatsby and his lifestyle, he soon learns the truth of Mr. Gatsby’s past and the reasons he really came to New York.
When I first heard of another Great Gatsby picture being made, my first reaction was excitement and anticipation. How could it not be? From the creative mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the many politics and emotions he makes you feel in his novel, it sounded like this movie was going to be a home run for both fans and non-fans of the book.
Then I learned that Baz Lurhmann was writing and directing. And then bowed my head and uttered a long, dubious groaaannnn. Lurhmann, who is most known for directing 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and 2008’s Australia, is commonly remembered as a director who abuses style over substance. With the previous films I just mentioned, not only are they silly, soupy, and sappy menial dramas: they fail to even attain interest, and are extremely forgettable in a line of much better romantic dramas, including Titanic and the 1968 Romeo And Juliet by Franco Zeffirelli.
Note: Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t seen his 2001 film Moulin Rouge!. Does it matter though, when out of his entire filmography, that’s the only film he can really brag about?
The beginning of The Great Gatsby, much like Luhrmann’s other pictures, also suffers from this case of style over substance, with its overly boisterous parties and distracting art sequences making no coherent sense or adding anything to the picture overall. What I found interesting, however, is that the first act barely matters. When Jay Gatsby is finally introduced, the film takes a sharp turn of interest and invigorates the audience with new energy, almost like the character changes the entire tone of the film simply by him just being there.
I imagine this is the kind of Jay Gatsby that Fitzgerald would have wanted cast: the type that dresses in nice suits, stands straight with his chin up, and one who enters a room with such stillness that you could hear a penny drop. The casting directors knew that their casting decision would be crucial to the film, and I think Fitzgerald would be pleased with the end result. DiCaprio hits every single note dead-on this fascinating character, and just by sheer appearance, demeanor and dialect does he inhabit the character of Jay Gatsby and allow audiences to slip into his conscience and feel what he is feeling.
Oh, I won’t deny everyone else is good in this movie. Joel Edgerton is effective as the antagonist, and even though he’s an industrial pioneer much like Gatsby is, he has such a hateful energy about him that makes you just want to run him over with a yellow beetle. Carey Mulligan is good as Gatsby’s love interest, and perfectly shows all the innocence and indecisiveness of her character in the midst of all the ruckus. Maguire, as well, is perfect as Nick Carraway, not as a character in himself, but as a silent observer, a passive voice who quietly watches over the scene, acting as the audience’s eyes and ears in this third-person narrative. But its DiCaprio who sucks us in, DiCaprio who winds us up and plays us like a record as he asks us to sit through this tender, emotionally captivating journey that serves as a metaphor for the wealthy and for the industrial era.
And don’t worry, I’ll give Luhrmann credit too. This film would not have survived without his writing or directing, as he has such reverence for the book and a great fear from deviating from it that the movie functions more as a love letter to Fitzgerald than it does as a strict book-to-movie adaptation.
Regardless, there’s only one person who shines the most here. DiCaprio made this movie, and through his performance we were able to identify with a character that struggles with his past, his wealth, his love, and the deepening sadness that he hides behinds his warm, welcoming smile.