I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting much. The Rotten Tomatoes reviews, the fact that I was late to the movie and still got a seat, the lack of dressed up viewers, and the general feeling that several people in the audience hadn't even read the book all evidenced that The Great Gatsby would be a let down.
Yet as Thursday night became Friday morning, Baz Luhrmann's vision began to grow on me. I left the movie with a new, sometimes forgotten, understanding of the novel. And so I'm here to defend Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby.
From what I have heard, the most common critique of the film has been the music and over-the-top visuals that Luhrmann employs. The Great Gatsby is infused with the anachronistic beats of Kanye West and Beyonce and green screen visuals that are more aptly suited for a Step Up movie. But how else was Luhrmann to truly show us what it felt like to be in the 1920s -- what it felt like to party in the 1920s? The '20s were the apex of the Jazz age. Jazz's lewd and provocative beats/tunes and dances permeated underground clubs and house parties. Today, Jazz is refined and sophisticated. Even the dance of the '20s, the Charleston, is an innocent dance done in jest at weddings.
In order to truly understand how Jazz must have felt to Gatsby, Carraway, and the Buchanans, Luhrmann had to use modern hip-hop to capture the provocative sensation that characterized 1920s Jazz. The emotion and imagery that the movie evoked would have been vastly different had Luhrmann used actual period music. By combining his choice of music and visuals, Luhrmann attempted (and succeeded) to portray to us (the 21st century audience) what made the roaring twenties truly "roaring."
The more sophisticated viewer (and to her credit, the girl I saw the movie with) critiques the flat dialogue and lack of witty lines that are usually characteristic of DiCaprio. But this seems to have been a conscious decision on the part of Luhrmann. By actively making the dialogue choppy and artificial, Luhrmann reminds us of an important part of the story that we sometimes forget in reading The Great Gatsby: the story is told by Nick Carraway. Lurhmann deviates from the novel and bookends the story with Carraway in a sanitarium. This creates the notion that the story is told as a kind of therapy for Carraway while he is institutionalized. The Great Gatsby is not meant for us (the consumer) but rather meant for Carraway. He has no interest in creating a witty, interesting story -- he cares about himself, he cares about writing only in so far as to better understand how he feels and how he can regain that "hopefulness" that Gatsby so embodied for him.
Moreover by keeping the story and dialogue awkward at times, Luhrmann continues to remind us that the story is only meant to be a mere memory of a depressed writer whittled away by time. Just like Carraway, we too embellish and glorify our stories. As the reader and viewer we are drawn into the extravagance of the setting and forget that it's an unreliable account of Carraway (so unreliable that in the last scene we see the symbolic gesture of Carraway adding the words "The Great" to his then title "Gatsby"). Looking back he understands the absurdity of what he has written and he understands that the story is not believable. It's not meant to be -- it is merely Carraway's selfish and therapeutic tool through which he can come to terms with a loss of both his friend and his own naiveté.
Ironically, it is only after the death of Gatsby when Carraway truly has a cathartic moment. It is here where Luhrmann decides to harken back to the wonderful and iconic lines of the Fitzgerald novel. It is here where he deliberately chooses to make the dialogue poetic and fluid. Luhrmann wants us to "see" (metaphorically and literally) Carraway's ability to write beautiful prose when he himself is feeling sincere emotion.
We love movies because they are a form of escapism. It is two hours where the blackberry doesn't chime, there's no boy/girlfriend drama, and there are no obligations except to be relatively silent. We suspend disbelief and reality in favor of the visual opulence on the big screen. In viewing The Great Gatsby, we must remember that it is a form of escapism for Carraway. In the same vein, Luhrmann has tried to recreate Carraway's experience of escapism on the big screen for all of us to partake in -- this is why the music, dance, visuals, and general sentiment of the film must be awkward, jarring, and provocative at the same time -- it's exactly how Carraway experienced it as his own therapy.
Suneal Bedi is a graduate of Harvard Law School.