The great American dream is an integral part of America. It’s ‘great’ in that it symbolises not truth, but hope when the truth is disillusioning; it symbolises not facts, but ideals when facts are unnerving; it symbolises not likelihood, but promise when likelihood is all but bleak.
The majestic city of New York has long been considered the manifestation of that dream, with its tall towers and the towering ambitions of those working in those offices; in its festive air and in the pursuits and proclivities of the people that breathe it. Where New York has long been the city of dreamers, Hollywood has specialised in the business and art of selling these dreams. In his new film, The Great Gatsby, director Baz Luhrmann proves himself to be both the dreamer as well as businessman; both the artist as well as the connoisseur. Luhrmann sells the great American dream not just to America, but to all enthusiasts of cinema across the globe, and with such glitz and élan, that we can’t help but get swayed into buying, and then living that dream, at its height and its collapse.
Of course, before we embark onto the journey that Luhrmann wants us to accompany him on, the weight of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, on which the movie is based, looms large over the film: Is Luhrmann faithful to the novel about a flamboyant millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leondardo Di Caprio), and his passionate, undying love for the beautiful but flawed Daisy Buchanan (Carrey Mulligan)? Is the film mindful of the novel’s themes of self-indulgence, class divide, social upheaval and the fast rise and the hard fall of the American dream? And does it do justice to the magnum opus, which has been twice attempted on screen before, and with mixed results?
Truth be told, just a few minutes into the movie, you aren’t bothered about the answers because the film isn’t an on-screen translation of Fitzgerald’s novel, but Luhrmann’s own version and vision of Jay Gatsby.
And that’s really what makes The Great Gatsby great: it isn’t a mere literary adaptation, but an imaginative filmmaker’s interpretation of what living and dreaming in the booming 1920s in New York would feel like if seen through the kaleidoscope of time.
So instead of a regular costume drama, we are treated to the grandest of spectacles, because that’s what it must have felt like. Instead of a preview of the jazz age, we get a taste of Jay Z-produced hip hop, because that’s the spirit of the times. Instead of mundane motion picture, we get immersive 3D, because that’s what it must have felt like. And even though it has its shortcomings in its repetitive approach to direction and cinematography, and the nippy editing that doesn’t give the frames breathing space, we feel, hear and see the carnival in front of us exactly like Luhrmann intended us to. And we just can’t help falling in love with it – well, I certainly did!
Even without a ‘Chhamma Chhamma’ (Anu Malik’s song used in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge), this is Luhrmann’s most Bollywood-esque of films, in terms of direction and the treatment. Due credit goes to Luhrmann at pulling off this cinematic celebration with aplomb, and at the same time ensuring the emotional core of the characters is firmly in place. Di Caprio’s charming but desperate Gatsby is one of the finest character portrayals this year – and the “meet cute” scene between his Gatsby and Mulligan’s Daisy (a highlight!) is a further testament to his fabulous range and ability.
Mulligan embodies the complexity of the tender, devoted yet lonely and detached Daisy with a calm flair. Joel Edgerton is brilliantly cast as the reckless Tom Buchanan. While Tobey Maguire is captivating as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, his character is perhaps the most weakly sketched and could’ve had stronger motivations to be transformed from being so wide-eyed at the beginning, and so desolate at the end.
The pleasant surprise amongst the cast is Amitabh Bachchan’s Meyer Wolfsheim, undoubtedly one of the best-acted Indian cameos in Hollywood cinema so far. The accent is right, the delivery is bang on, the acting is impressive. Even in his brief moments on screen, Bachchan manages to stand out in a way that his presence lies over the film right till the end. Hat tip to the legend.
There is an exchange in The Great Gatsby where Carraway quietly implores Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past.” A dogged Gatsby replies, without a moment’s hesitation: “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can”. While Gatsby’s faith may have been misplaced, Luhrmann’s is not. In The Great Gatsby, he not only conjures a wonderful tale about the American dream and the past, he also shows us just how it can be repeated with a style and grandiosity that mirrors the Great Gatsby himself.