I have to admit, I went into Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby completely blank. Sitting in the theater I realized I hadn’t read the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel in over a decade, and remembered nothing other than a hazy vagueness. I pressed my mind for something. Finally, an image: someone was dead, floating into a pool. Thankfully, I couldn’t remember more. One less spoiler to worry about as the lights began to dim.
The Great Gatsby opens with the Warner Brothers logo in scratchy black and white, as if the film is some relic from the past. Seconds later, it turns to rich gold and stark black. Echoes of the past have met the present, a theme throughout the movie, and we are whisked away into America in the 1920’s. The story is told by Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, a beaten down man, who, while talking to a doctor about his problems in the past, reveals the narrative of The Great Gatsby. Carraway is a bond broker living in a small home, just outside New York in West Egg. As fate would have it, he moves right next door to Jay Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. We only see glimpses of Gatsby standing in the shadows of his curtains but his legend is everywhere. Eventually, Carraway is invited to Gatsby’s lavish home and what he walks into is quite a sight. The party of parties, with hundreds, if not thousands of people, socialites, celebrities, politicians, anyone and everyone from New York making their way to Gatsby’s for a party. That is where we finally are introduced to Jay Gatsby, Carraway’s prominent and super wealthy neighbor. Honestly, prior to DiCaprio’s presence, the film was average. Sure it was interesting, the costumes and sets (whether real or CGI) were elaborate, but the substance, the fire, was missing. For me at least, the film came to life the moment that DiCaprio was on screen.
Carraway and Gatsby strike up a friendship, but, unknown to Carraway, Gatsby has a secondary motive. Carraway is the cousin of Daisy Buchanan, a past love interest of Gatsby’s. Scratch that: she is the only love interest of Gatsby’s. Five years earlier, Gatsby fell in love with her, but he was sent off to war. In letters to Daisy, he asked her to wait for him until he can amass his fortune. But Daisy couldn’t and married ridiculously rich Tom Buchanan. Gatsby asks Carraway to set up a meeting between him and Daisy, a meeting that sets into motion Gatsby’s fall. Gatsby becomes even more obsessed with getting Daisy back, having her say she never loved Tom and only him. It all leads to an unforgettable – and tragic – ending.
What I liked most about The Great Gatsby were the themes. The ideas go beyond the scope of the characters and the 1920’s. It is a great indictment of the super wealthy, the ones who have inherited a life in which they are not required to work. Their days are filled with shallow entertainments. But idle hands are the devil’s playground. As we look into their lives, something is missing. They cheat, gossip, drink, and party. Life has a purpose only to satisfy oneself. Even with riches one can only dream of (and admit it – we all do), they are sinking in their own selfishness. All except Gatsby. He is different, as he came from nothing. He has tried to build his wealth, but he has failed in another way. His reasons for wealth were to buy love. He did everything so he could turn back time and recreate a past life with Daisy.
All in all, The Great Gatsby is a good film. Not great, but good. My interest lagged in the beginning, but the moment I met Gatsby, I was in. What holds The Great Gatsby back from being a great film? Although I enjoyed the experience, I can’t say I’ll be thinking of the film in weeks to come; the mark of something truly great is when it resonates with you. Perhaps that has to do with the performances. Aside from DiCaprio, who I’ve gone on about enough already (admittedly, I have a little man-crush here), the other actors were, I hate to say it, replaceable. The only standout was DiCaprio, which definitely pushed his performance to the top, but was that due to his superiority as an actor or an average supporting cast? Yet, there’s still nothing wrong with a good, entertaining, slick-looking film. And that’s what The Great Gatsby is.