The Late Gatsby: First Impressions

Okay, I’m very, very late seeing Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

I had looked forward to the film, as I became a Baz fan back when Strictly Ballroom became an audience favorite back in 1992, and I so enjoyed Moulin Rouge‘s flamboyant tribute to the superficiality and soul of pop music that I saw it five times in the theater.

But early reviews convinced me to make other movies a higher priority, and I put off the latest Luhrmann spectacle.

Well, now I regret that. To the complainers I say, “Yammer on, old sports.” I was mightily impressed by Gatsby.

It has something to do with the way Luhrmann marries music and imagery; with the propulsive, unyielding dreams exploding from his imagination; with the way he loves faces (and this movie is filled with wonderful faces); with his giddy love of dancing (and everything in this movie is dancing all the time). I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that The Great Gatsby plays like Moulin Rouge, Part II.

For today’s moviegoers, Luhrmann’s films are the equivalent of opera (“popera”?), with the soaring kaleidoscopic imagery and light taking the place of soaring voices. Opera has never been for everybody. But for a few of us — me included — the go-for-brokeness of it, the unapologetic and uninhibited enthusiasm of it, the seventeen-layer cakeness of it, has a particular magic.

Yes, I know, there are a lot of things that other artists could have done with this story that Luhrmann couldn’t do on his best day.

And yes, I too would have cast the parts a little differently. (I think somebody finally found a perfect character for the adult Leonardo DiCaprio to play. Tobey Maguire’s meekness serves him well as Nick. And Joel Edgerton has a great face and voice for a 1920s period piece. But I just don’t think Carey Mulligan, much as I love her. was right for this part. She’s got the look of beauty tainted by sadness and fear. But y contrast, Elizabeth Debicki stole every scene she was in, and almost stole the movie itself.)

But Baz Luhrmann, like Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, has his own particular strengths and idiosyncrasies that ensure nobody else can make a Baz Luhrmann movie. He knows who he is, what he’s about, and what he loves. And he gives it all, every time, putting every last penny on the screen.

I’m glad he’s around.

Dare I, an English major, admit that this is my introduction to this story? It’s true. I read a lot of classics in school, but not all of them, and Gatsby‘s one of the big ones that got away. But if anybody was worried that Luhrmann’s vision would overwhelm the story, well… that didn’t happen.

I was actually moved by watching Nick Carraway’s turmoil; by slowly coming to understand and admire the “hopefulness” of Gatsby himself even as I recoiled at his excesses; by Daisy’s courageous willingness to tell the truth under pressure. And the thing I’ll remember most — the power of that alluring green light across the water, a symbol of the heaven that is always beyond our grasp if, indeed, we pursue it by grasping.

The story drew me in and kept me guessing to the end. It made me want to read the book.

Perhaps that’s the highest compliment I can give, in this case.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Jon Land

    I too had put off seeing it. As a lot of things came out around that time and this slipped through the cracks. I did read the book and I was hoping that it would do it justice. And based on what you’ve said and Dawn’s comment it should be worthwhile to check out.

  • Dawn

    I just saw the movie about two weeks ago and I had meant to see it earlier, because I had seen the old version and read the book a few times. Loved the movie, although I thought some of the CGI effects were distracting. Completely agree with what you said of Mulligan and DiCaprio. There were details from the book that they left out or glossed over that seemed important, but for the most part I felt it was so wonderfully done and afterwards it still puts me in awe that anyone dreamed up such a story.


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