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When I was 17, someone made me read The Great Gatsby. I don’t remember the English teacher’s name, but I do remember the reverence and the slight hint of a romantic crush in her voice when she introduced our class to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I became addicted to the drug of Fitzgerald’s gorgeous prose and spent a summer reading Tender is the Night, This Side of Paradise and Gatsby again. More than 40 years later, I can’t remember exactly what I loved about those books, but I remember how I felt reading them: transported from my ordinary life, a little sad, swept away by the promise of beauty.
Someone made my sons read The Great Gatsby when they were 17 and they were less susceptible to the Fitzgerald swoon. They were bored with Nick’s sensitive recollection of the summer of Gatsby and Daisy. What was the big deal, anyway? They had been raised on Tolkien and were passionate Harry Potter nerds. Where was the magic in this required reading?
Baz Luhrmann’s latest cinematic spectacle — a garish Gatsby shot in 3-D with a hybrid hip-hop soundtrack — marries Fitzgerald’s prose with the director’s own indulgent, over-ripe style and is skating right over a mine field of wildly mixed reviews to box office success in the U.S. Even better, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is reintroducing the book to a generation of reluctant readers.
I cringed at the trailers for this new Gatsby. It looked like a theme park advertisement and sounded worse. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Luhrmann’s Gatsby, for the most part, is respectful, almost worshipful of the source material. Beyond an unnecessary framing device that puts Nick Carraway, the narrator, in a sanitorium, writing the story as a therapeutic exercise, Luhrmann’s adaptation remains faithful to the book. And compared to the frenzied musical slapstick of his last film, Moulin Rouge, it feels practically restrained in its fidelity. The fundamental difference between this version and the disappointingly wooden 1974 vehicle for Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as Gatsby and Daisy, is that this one wants to be a movie, not a museum piece.
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars,” wrote Fitzgerald. There is nothing moth-like or whispering about the drunken, clamoring throngs in Luhrmann’s party scenes at Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion. The excess of the Jazz Age depicted in the film is gaudy and hyperbolic, an appropriate parallel to the excesses of the one-percent in the midst of financial collapse nearly a hundred years later. Fitzgerald’s fable of the flawed American dream translates effectively to 2013.
Tobey Maguire is serviceable, if a little too wide-eyed, as Nick, and Carey Mulligan is almost too likeable as Daisy, the girl for whom Gatsby invented himself, and who will eventually toss him under the bus to protect her own hide. Mulligan’s Daisy comes off not as the careless ingénue we know she is, but as a victim of her brutish husband, Tom Buchanan, played menacingly with a little Hitler moustache by Joel Edgerton. Some of the film’s best scenes are Edgerton’s, especially Tom’s standoff with Gatsby in a sweltering suite at the Plaza, vying for Daisy’s fealty. The Australian actress, Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jordan Baker, the sardonic golfing champion, casually unfolding her long body in scene after scene, nearly steals the show.
But this is Leonardo DiCaprio’s moment, in his portrayal of Gatsby’s charm and delusion. He tries on a strange accent that made me wish he would never say “Old Spohht” (aka Old Sport) again. But Gatsby’s relentless drive, symbolized by a souped-up yellow custom Dusenberg, and his seeming disattachment to anything beyond the pursuit of his flawed dream, are played warmly by DiCaprio, with a sincerity that builds sympathy for both actor and character.
Luhrmann’s visual flights are fun, like an amusement park ride but with fabulous scenery. His depiction of the Valley of Ashes, the hideous purgatory between opulent Long Island and majestic New York City, where poor people toil while rich people ignore them, breathes life into some of the book’s most enduring images, especially the crumbling billboard with the spectacled eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, overseeing the ruin.
Luhrmann hits and misses with his promiscuous camera, repeating too loved shots too many times. But he succeeds at ravishing the viewer, just as Fitzgerald enraptured this reader at seventeen. My only wish is that I was seeing it for the first time through those 17-year old eyes.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.