Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" has flaws. For starters, it's visually and sonically bloated and about a half-hour too long (total running time is almost two-and-a-half hours). But it is also magical, complex, intelligent, and a true work of art -- one of the best films of 2013 thus far, probably the best so far.
The film has triggered in me a great desire to finally read the novel (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925). This is not just a story about characters; it's a layered, poetic meditation on the meaning and quality of modern life. When the book was first published, if must have felt like an embodiment of the young 20th century. Young writer, young era, young characters. (Fitzgerald was in his 20's when he wrote it.)
What I love about this adaptation is that Luhrmann has found a way to make it speak in the same way to the young 21st century. By incorporating Jay Z and other contemporary music and giving the film a highly current feel, Luhrmann has given the tragic story of Gatsby and Daisy the opportunity to speak to us as it did to our grandparents' and great-grandparents' generations. All of us moderns. We may be later-modern, but there's something about the reckless frenzy of the 1920s that feels recognizable, like we're in the later phases of an epoch that began in Fitzgerald's time.
Yes, the soundtrack is often too loud and overpowering, but that musical intensity is essential to Luhrmann's artistic aim here. I think sometimes the music is meant to be a bit grating for middle-aged viewers, as jazz and Gershwin were to middle-aged ears in the 1920s. One of the most distinctive aspects of the modern era is the explosion of pop music, which young people always yearn to play at high volumes. Luhrmann has a masterful eye for noticing similarities like this across the different decades of the modern era. He connects the dots across time periods in ways that no other filmmaker can.
For those who don't know the novel, the basic parameters of the story are as follows. The narrator is Nick Carraway (here played adequately by Tobey Maguire), an upper-middle-class Midwestern boy just out of college who moves to New York a few years after the war (WWI) and gets a job on Wall Street.
He rents a small house right next to a gaudy mansion owned by a mysterious Oz-like bachelor named Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). Directly across the bay from them is a palatial estate owned by a young couple, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who both come from old money.
Nick quickly realizes that Daisy and Gatsby have a romantic history. The central drama that emerges concerns whether Daisy (played well by Carey Mulligan) is going to leave her unfaithful husband, whom she doesn't really love, break the taboos of her class, and marry the up-from-the-gutter Gatsby. As you can see, class hierarchy is a central theme.
These days, this theme tends to cause eye-rolling because in the the past 100 years class stratification has decreased, making American society less caste-like. Self-made men and women travel among old money with greater ease today than ever before. But just because class lines are somewhat permeable today doesn't mean they don't exist. Every American today has had some experience with class stratification. Anyone who denies that is lying -- to himself.
Luhrmann succeeds in depicting the power of social hierarchy as it must have felt for people like Gatsby and Daisy. Luhrmann also triumphs in depicting the power of their love. I don't believe I will ever forget the intensity of the sequence where Gatsby and Daisy see each other for the first time since their break-up five years earlier. DiCaprio and Mulligan capture the terror and bliss of this moment magnificently, especially DiCaprio. Rarely have I seen a male actor depict romantic turmoil so well. Gatsby quite literally comes apart in this sequence.
Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom thus form a romantic triangle. But the two men are actually involved in another such intimate entanglement. Gatsby and Tom are both having an affair with a lower-class woman from Queens (played beautifully by Isla Fisher). "Affair" might be too strong a word. She's not much more than a prostitute to the men. But because of Fisher's resonant performance, this character takes on real depth of feeling. Yes, she's a floozy, but what's underneath the manic partying is a desperate yearning to escape the gutter to which she knows she and her husband are doomed.
Even her husband takes on emotional weight in the story. Played superbly by Jason Clarke, this character's black hole of a life becomes part and parcel of what Luhrmann and Fitzgerald are trying to explore. Even though the character doesn't have much screen time, he has a major scene in the end that is memorable. His rage, furthermore, leads to the story's violent crescendo and the death of a major character. (I won't tell you who.) In several ways, this character serves as a turning-point in the story.
Sometimes one feels during the film that there are too many characters. But that very multiplicity is also a strength. Every nook and cranny of the film is teeming with life, each character with a unique vantage point through which one may contemplate America.
There are about 25 other things I'd like to say about this film, but I can't go on forever. I'll end with this:
Luhrmann four or five times draws attention to the fact that his source material is a beloved novel. Several of the book's most elegiac, unique and profound sentences appear on the screen -- the actual words appear, as Maguire reads them in voice-over narration. They appear for a moment and then float away, as if Luhrmann were blowing them out like a candle.
I found these moments sublime. A filmmaker as much in love with books as movies. Almost all true artists are passionate about several art forms, not just their own, but rarely do they share this with us. Luhrmann of course is interested in the book because of its extraordinary contents. But a part of his appreciation lies in the form in which that artistry is delivered. Its book-ness, if you will. The look of the words on the page, the feel of the paper in your hand, the smell of it. (Have you ever flipped through a book, looking at all the words, and felt a surge of ecstasy, just over its glorious book-ness?)
Because this words-on-the-screen technique is used mostly at the end of the film, one walks out of the theater with it fresh in the mind. I walked out picturing Luhrmann as a young man reading "Gatsby" for the first time. There he is, college student with a difficult novel in his hands, drinking in its best sentences, overwhelmed at the moments when, in one sentence, the 25-year-old Fitzgerald simultaneously captures the warm, gushing power of love and the cold, merciless power of death.
It's moments like these, when reading a great novel, that turn a boy into an artist.
All these decades later, the middle-aged Luhrmann still remembers those sentences, what they meant to him and how they changed his life. That's a small part of his landmark adaptation of this novel that everyone said would be un-adaptable. I'm fairly confident that a good number of boys who see this film will feel themselves turning into artists as a result. Thank you, Baz Luhrmann, for passing it on to the next generation.
Effective but one-dimensional docudrama about the notorious hitman Richard Kuklinski who went to prison in 1986 and died in 2006. Michael Shannon's performance is impressively intense but rather simple.