Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Great Gatsby

If you're like me, you may have felt that you were sent mixed messages about the quality of The Great Gatsby movie that came out last weekend: the previews looked beautiful, thrilling, and fantastic, and then the reviews kind of sucked. Rotten Tomatoes only gave it a 48%, where 60+ is considered a good movie. Metacritic gave it just a little better at 55%.

But for my part, I thought it was FANTASTIC. The cinematics, the fashion, the music, the actors, and the plot--everything was dramatic, intimate, and heart-rending. It didn't just follow the book, it brought it to life as if F. Scott Fitzgerald himself were directing. I felt like I had seen every scene before, so closely did it resemble what I had imagined when I first read it.

The Great Gatsby is the kind of book that, unlike most books, doesn't get worse the more you have to analyze it and write assignments based on it. While most of high school consisted of reading so-so books and then analyzing them to shreds until there was little enjoyment left to them, The Great Gatsby was one that I genuinely enjoyed studying. Drawing out the themes and observing Fitzgerald's magnificent use of literary device only proves more what a masterpiece the book is. It's a sad, devastating story, but poignancy and longing only help in revealing truths of the human heart. It's not a story with heroes; it's a tragedy, but it does not depress: rather, it makes you want to choose better in your own life and avoid at all cost the situations the characters find themselves in. And in some ways it helps you simply mourn the could-have-beens of life that never will be.

Some of my readers may be amazed that I like this kind of book. I'm usually all for the upbeat and cheerful. I love humor and comedy. I love it when people fall in love but think their other doesn't love them back, when the joke is in the misunderstanding, and when everyone ends up happy in the end--stories like "An Ideal Husband" by Oscar Wilde, and pretty much any book by P.G. Wodehouse. But The Great Gatsby has a flair, a romanticism, and beneath it all a deep underlying voice that calls out to be heard. It draws me in.

Afterward you may feel a bit devastated, but its a food-for-thought kind of book that the heart can feed on too. Though things don't end up as anyone wants, though dreams are shattered, there is still a dream that remains: such a love existed. It may not have worked out, but it was there. And then the very fact that when it comes to the choice, someone might choose their marriage over what could be, choose commitment instead of love... That shows something about love's nature, too; that love, better as we ever dreamed it could be, is still not everything.

The movie had me feeling the hopes and dreams of the characters like I was living it. I had to say that each actor stepped it up. Tobey Maguire, who is a good actor but I always thought very one-sided--he can't play much more than the melancholy, I-need-you-to-believe-in-me, personal-crisis boy--went above and beyond in portraying someone rather different than his usual slot. Leonardo DiCaprio showed a quality of acting even he had never shown before. When narrator Nick Carroway (Maquire) describes Gatsby as having a look that believed in you and encouraged you at the same time, DiCaprio turns to face the camera and you see that very look on his face: like he knows you, he thinks the world of you, and he believes you can succeed. And when Jordan Baker (Debicki) says Gatsby looked at Daisy the way every woman wants to be looked at--he did.

Both Carey Mulligan and Elizabeth Debicki pulled off the book characters of Daisy and Jordan and made them real, breathing people: even with their exaggerated innocence and coyness, respectively, they were so human about it that I could have met them anywhere. It was like they walked right out of 20's culture.

Ah, the 20's. Characters weren't the only ones radiating with the culture and attitude of the roaring twenties. A lot of my favorite books, by several different authors, are all set in the 20's, and I like to think I have a good idea of the time period. The Great Gatsby movie was spot on. Homes and parties and interior/exterior design, the art and the fashion: everything looked like it should be. The movie was worth watching for the sets and costumes alone.

I had heard Baz Luhrmann was going to try to give it a modern flair, but since the previews didn't portray this at all, I was hopeful that this was a lie, since I assumed any modern flair would ruin the very 20's-esque story. But they decided to take a different bent on "modernizing" an old film that was the most successful I've ever seen--or heard, actually: everything looked like it was supposed to, but at least one-third of the music was modern. It was a great way to play off the senses: you looked at a scene and saw a party from the roaring twenties, with short-haired girls in flappers, the whole bit. But the songs were ones I recognized, with a beat and a feel that was familiar to me. It kept it from feeling alien or historical, and it emotionally drew you further into the movie. It made me feel like I belonged there, like I was an insider not an outsider.

I loved seeing Fitzgerald's themes come to life. To someone who hasn't read the book, the horn-player, the blue glasses, and the green light might seem like strange details, but I'm so glad their thematic and literary importance wasn't lost in the making of the movie. Similarly, some of the scenes driving into coaltown may seem overly dramatic, except that they're exactly how Fitzgerald describes them: the sudden shift to dirty homes and dirty people working around the shells of industrial-looking ruins.

And then there's the plot. How can you not enjoy a love story like that? I don't usually like the typical love story; it's too predictable and just too simple. The Great Gatsby goes above and beyond in being complicated and unpredictable. But it's a human complicated--the sort of complicated you get when real people get entangled with other real people in the mess we call life. Affairs and falling in and out of love, and pursuing dreams and trying to work out marriage, and trying to be what everyone expects of you and that ultimate search for soul-deep acceptance. It's all there.

I wouldn't say it's a movie anyone younger than high school would enjoy or even understand, but high schoolers on up will find the movie intriguing, fun, moving, and thoughtful. There's lots to talk about afterward with the ideas of love, marriage, friendship, and faithfulness.

For viewers who'd like to know: there are two implied sex scenes, but we see nothing; Gatsby kisses slowly down Daisy's neck with an obvious endpoint, and Nick hears Tom and Myrtle breathing heavily with lots of creaking noises coming from behind a closed door. There is lots of drinking and many "scantily-clad" women (you see worse on a beach nowadays). However, they did a good job of keeping it clean and appropriate, especially for a story that has affairs and parties at it's core.

On the Liz scale of 1-5, I'd give this one a 4.5. A movie with a 5 means I'll watch it over and over again every six months for the rest of my life (What's Up Doc, Return to Me, Hot Fuzz) and/or that I'll see it multiple times in theaters--like Return of the King, which I saw 4 times. Being a 4 means I liked it enough to own it and urge friends to see it. This one definitely got close to the former.

And of course, if you don't want to see it, Iron Man 3 is out, with better characterization than ever before. It's no longer about fun toys and an arrogant guy who is supposed to annoy. I never really saw the point. But in this most recent film, Tony Stark finally became a believable character and the plot finally jerked up some pathos from the audience. Yup, this one was good.

I'd be interested to hear others' take on The Great Gatsby...did you like it as much as I did?