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.