Apropos of nothing, I recently woke up with the idea that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby might just be a dead set masterpiece. So I picked up a copy of the book, which has been the easiest thing to do ever since, for reasons only fully understood by themselves, the Council On Books In Wartime decided it would be the novel they’d send overseas by the hundred thousand to soldiers in WWII, ensuring that, improbably, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s little known The Great Gatsby would become The Great American Novel. And wouldn’t you know it, it just might be! Because what it actually is is the great American daydream: fabulously indulgent, ironic, biting, somehow gaudy and gauzy at once, hilarious, inadvertent, morbid, and hiding at its core an embarrassing sentimentality, which it will try to drown in champagne and pools as soon as you’ve seen it. God bless Gatsby. God bless America.
And god bless the 2013 film, because they GOT IT.
The first time I’d watched it I wasn’t clear, because I was fairly drunk, which frankly should have been a sign in itself that something was going right. In fact, I’d snuck two Nalgene bottles of mimosas in to the summer matinee showing for myself, a friend, and our old high school English teacher. We had a tremendous time. Rewatching this, it wasn’t until I hit the scene where Nick gets smashed in the apartment Tom keeps for Myrtle in the city that I recalled I originally saw it in 3D. The mere fact that you were able to watch The Great Gatsby in 3D is probably enough to get F. Scott Fitzgerald bought a drink every day in author heaven.
What delights me about this adaptation is that it appears to understand its source material to be the brightly ridiculous thing that it is. I pray that this was purposeful, because it’s such a good embodiment of theme if it is, but the movie has that particular look of cheapness that nonetheless someone spent a lot of money on. That too bright, too glossy fake quality, brought doubly to life with zipping, loopy editing. It’s a fun that seems self-aware, as we watch greedy gin-soaked butterflies dance around a Disneyland magic mansion with nearly negative regard for either realities of physical space or blocking consistency, while verbatim dialogue from the novel trips off everyone’s silver-spoon tongues, lines sometimes almost layered on top of each other like you’re flipping through the pages of the book in your English class.
The flawless anachronistic picks for music (tracks from co-producer Jay Z, ironic masterstroke “A Little Party Don’t Kill Nobody,” Lana Del Rey — who has been serving fucked-up fantasy American Dream realness at such a high grade that you can’t even blame them for mixing in her singing “Young and Beautiful” twice) are about as perfect as the picks for casting. Carey Mulligan appears to be the murmuring child of a shower of gold coins and a dappled fawn. Tobey Maguire is one of our best bemused Everymans, because he never makes the mistake of playing them as if Everymans aren’t deluded nightmares of their own. And truly talented comedic actor Leonardo diCaprio as Jay Gatsby, looking confusingly thinner and younger than he did before or after, is some time-travelly psychological genius for the character trying to beat back into his soft-focused daydream of the past.
Much like the book, there are still a handful of sadly sincere moments, like the more subtly pretty staging and genuinely pretty phrasing of Gatsby realizing “his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one,” but it’s not long before we’re treated to a wind-lashed yacht rescue flashback sequence, complete with such Arrested Development-sounding descriptors as “its captain, alcoholic millionaire Dan Cody.” Even the properly jaw-dropping car accident scene, broken glass glittering the roadway like diamonds, is followed by Gatsby hilariously lurking in the bushes outside Daisy’s house like a creepy house cat in a pale pink suit.
Honestly, I hit a point where I began to wonder if this thing isn’t brilliantly dumb in a similar way to Wet Hot American Summer, and then I heard that title in my head, and couldn’t stop laughing. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby: actually pretty Great.