The reviews are in and it seems all the top critics agree—Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was an over-the-top, theatrical flop. Spoiler alert: I do not agree with the critics. Yes, Gatsby was over-the-top, yes it was theatrical, but no, it didn’t flop. Not enough for me to notice at least because hey, I liked it! And so did at least a few of my sophomore students when I took them to see it today at the theater for a matinée field trip.
I’ve been around long enough to know it does no one any good to argue with the critics. But c’mon. We saw this coming, right? How could the director of Moulin Rouge hold back when you’ve got themes of lavish wealth, love and liquor to play with? We knew it would be “The Roaring Twenties” both mythologized and modernized to an almost overbearing degree. We knew that from the moment we heard executive producer Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” in that very first trailer. Which yeah, was awesome.
I don’t want to stretch this any further than the average English major, but if anything, Luhrmann's modern spin shows us times haven’t changed all that much since the twenties (which mostly just means Fitzgerald is still a genius). Cars remain symbols of wealth and luxury. Our social class still determines where we live and who we talk to. People still abuse alcohol and do stupid things. Love still and always will hypnotize folks to do crazy, obsessive things—like move across a bay from someone you secretly love and stare at their dock until sunrise, then set off fireworks and play loud jazz music from your porch every night, hoping they'll swing by to investigate. Normal.
As Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio steals the show. His forced Long Island accent (is that a real thing?) and non-stop “old sport” are enough to make you gag on your popcorn kernels, sure. But then you remember, this is kind of what Gatsby is about. He’s part gag-inducing Oxford wannabe, part lying scoundrel, part classy gentlemen, part handsome heartthrob, and part pitied victim—all at the same time. DiCaprio indeed does them all, and he looks good doing them, especially in that pink suit.
The other showstopper is actress Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker. Debicki is certainly the most striking person on camera. Her tall, lanky frame and glamorous costumes are just what you'd want and imagine for a 1920s socialite. It's not only her looks that intrigue but her attitude as well. She's languid, lying on Daisy's white couch when Nick says, “She was the most terrifying woman I had ever seen,” and you’re instantly drawn to her--her mystery and ease. It’s a shame Luhrmann didn’t play up Jordan’s character even more, or choose to elaborate on her questionable relationship with Nick.
Like many novel to film adaptations, watching the movie just made me think about how much I love reading that book. It’s a classic and it always will be no matter how many filmmakers try to tackle it. The critics can rest easy with that at least. And at the end of the day, let’s face it. Baz Luhrmann vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald is just not a fair fight.