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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book to Reel: The Great Gatsby


Rarely have I looked forward to a movie as much as The Great Gatsby. The continual delay of the release was frustrating and heightened my anticipation. The main reason I’ve been so excited about it is pretty simple: Leo. I sincerely think he’s the finest actor working today. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, This Boy’s Life, The Aviator, Inception, Shutter Island…the list goes on. (Yes, I am aware that I left out Titanic. I meant to.) The 1974 big-screen version featuring Robert Redford isn’t horrible, but there are some serious problems. (Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan? What the heck?) The story was simply crying out for a remake, and who better to tackle the job than the amazing Baz Luhrman? I was beyond thrilled when I heard he was the director. But when you are anticipating a movie this much, the fear is that it won’t live up to the hype. Couple that with the so-so reviews, and I was really starting to get nervous. I don’t get out much (I have a million kids), so my plan to have a “mommy date” with a friend who is also a stay-at-home mom was getting bigger and more grandiose in my mind with each passing week. I had a lot riding on this! It was supposed to make up for lots of sleepless nights with a baby, a husband who works A LOT and isn’t often able to let me go have some adult time…basically, for me, a night out to the movies with a girlfriend is equivalent to an all-expenses-paid week-long vacation for a regular person…and just as rare. How awful if the movie didn’t turn out to be all I really needed it to be. But guess what? I loved it. Let me tell you why.

The first and most obvious reason is the sheer visual splendor; it’s a delicious smorgasbord of colors and costumes and scenery. Luhrmann has an incredible artistic vision that we’ve been privy to before (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet), and it culminates here in this juxtaposition of tawdry gaudiness and ethereal beauty. His over-the-top stylization is perfect for the Roaring Twenties and for the decadence of the people being portrayed. The casting was also excellent, for the most part. I wasn’t expecting much from Carey Mulligan as Daisy, but since I’ve never cared for Mia Farrow’s rendition in the original, I figured I’d stay open. I was very pleasantly surprised. She is the perfect mixture of charm, weakness, and hysteria without being shrill (the trap Mia Farrow fell into). Joel Edgerton is magnificent as Tom Buchanan and adds a misogynistic flair to his portrayal that pushes Daisy’s nervousness into real fear; it makes her weakness slightly more forgivable. And of course Leo is wonderful. His Gatsby is more vulnerable than Redford’s Gatsby, and therefore more endearing. The sweetness of his smile is truly touching and softens the fact that he is just the tiniest bit too old to be playing this part (he may look good, but he doesn’t look thirty-two). Gatsby has “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” and Leo captures this aspect of the character beautifully, as well as Gatsby’s passion and determination.  The two scenes that impressed me the most are his first meeting with Daisy and the hotel scene when he confronts Tom; his performance is riveting.

Tobey McGuire plays a different Nick Carraway than Fitzgerald created, but this script required a different Nick, and it worked within the framework of the altered story. Sam Waterston is my favorite thing about the original movie, though, and as much as I have always admired Tobey McGuire, he is not as good. But the only truly poor portrayal was Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson. She looked and acted cheap and vulgar, and Fitzgerald’s Myrtle was desperately trying to be a refined lady. The cast is rounded out by Jason Clarke and Amitabh Bachchan playing Tom Wilson and Myer Wolfshiem respectively, and their performances positively leapt off the screen. They were nothing short of brilliant.

But  how did it stack up against the book? I have to be honest, it fell short. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I look forward to viewing it again at home when I can pause and pay more attention to detail, but there is a sorrow and a beauty in this book that is difficult to capture on screen…there is an element that is as elusive as Gatsby himself. Fitzgerald created a character that is part larger than life, part dreamer, part fool. His foibles and even, at times, awkwardness, make him irresistible to tender hearts. Normally, I would be revolted by a man whose sole aim in life is to win back his old love even though she is married to someone else. Like Nick, I “thoroughly disapprove” of Gatsby, but despite my disapproval, his humanity and charm move me.

“He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

This is Nick’s impression of Gatsby and just one of many beautifully written passages. It’s impossible to convey all of these thoughts and feelings with a look, no matter how enchanting Leo’s smile is. Fitzgerald’s descriptions effortlessly conjure the scenes, action, and characters, except for Gatsby himself. He remains shadowy and mysterious, and no matter how pathetic some of his desires are, they never seem pathetic because of their intensity, his loyalty to his vision, and his stupendous innocence. I think that is what touches me the most about this story; it is filled with decadence and sin and ugliness, yet Gatsby remains untouched in some part of himself despite his bootlegging and adultery. In that sense, his ending is a fitting resolution. He could not have survived the death of all of his dreams, a physical death was preferable. I enjoyed this movie, but something is definitely lost in translation. If you haven’t picked up the book since tenth grade, I recommend giving it another look. If you’ve never read it at all, I envy you the opportunity to discover it for the first time.

POSTED BY: L.R. Blizzard