The Great Gatsby film is big, bold, brash, and over-the-top — just right for an adaptation of a novel about the greed and decadence of the Roaring Twenties.
The film begins with the framing device that Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator played by Tobey Maguire, is in a psychiatric ward recalling his summer in New York City with Jay Gatsby to a doctor. In the first few minutes of the film, the audience sees that Nick has been diagnosed as an alcoholic with fits of anger and depression.
Though that fact isn’t in the book, it’s not a far leap.
We are then launched into the story of Nick meeting Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Gatsby’s affair with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), and the fast cars, cheap booze, and fast, cheap women that populated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s New York of the 1920s.
The movie captures all the breathtaking visuals that you would expect from The Great Gatsby and the 1920s. The costumes — especially Daisy’s — make you want to throw away every piece in your closet that doesn’t have beads or sparkles. The settings emphasize the stark contrast between Gatsby’s and the Buchanans’ mansions on Long Island with the gray valley of ashes, an industrial dumping ground between Long Island and New York City.
It’s old money vs. new money vs. no money.
It’s easy to tell that the actors put research into their roles, and everyone was cast well. Mulligan’s Daisy had the perfect mix of insensitivity and vapidness. Though Nick is the narrator, he is meant to be a background character; he isn’t supposed to be a star. I’m not usually a fan of Maguire, but he was suited for that role. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, was obnoxious, as he should be. DiCaprio’s Gatsby gave off the aura of hopefulness and a sense throughout the movie that this hope would be crushed, as it inevitably is.
But the insincerely big parties and expensive cars and colorful clothes and everything else give way to the climax of the film. Gatsby, Nick, Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Tom, and Daisy go to a hotel room in the city, where Gatsby and Tom fight over Daisy. It is the most sincere — and perhaps jarring — part of both the film and the book because the characters are not hiding behind a veneer of alcohol, clothes, or money.
Director Baz Luhrmann is wise to this and makes the heat in the hotel room (from both the temperature and the argument) not only apparent to the audience — he forces his viewers to feel as uncomfortable as Nick and Jordan must during such a raw confrontation.
This is not a subtle movie, nor should it be. The parties, the clothes, the lifestyle — they are wild, excessive, and trashy. The movie follows the book closely, and there is a great focus on the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock. (It’s apparent that Luhrmann was fond of that particular piece of imagery.)
Don’t go into this film expecting elegance. It’s as boisterous and tawdry as the booze-soaked parties it depicts.
Fitzgerald would be proud.