Director Baz Luhrmann has created a grand opus filled with shiny costumes, modern music, magical camera tricks and classical early Hollywood filmmaking to once again bring to life F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved and iconic novel ‘The Great Gatsby’. The film is over-the-top, lavish and a bit flawed, but so is the title character, after all. The feel and tone of the film is entrancing, as the visuals take us to the early 1920s New York, where we become infatuated with Gatsby and his American dream.
‘Gatsby’ is set to open the Cannes Film Festival next week, several days after it debuts in America, and I imagine that with its amazing cast and noted director, the film will fare pretty well at the box office its first weekend. The main concern here whether the younger demographic will latch onto it, giving it more momentum after its initial three days. With Jay-Z’s help in the music department, I think that Luhrmann will have a hit on his hands, despite the movie’s flaws.
This is far from the first time someone has tried to adapt ‘The Great Gatsby’ to screen. Previous attempts include a 1926 silent film, a 1949 version directed by Elliot Nugent (‘My Favorite Brunette’), the 1974 film with Robert Redford, and a 2000 television movie that starred Paul Rudd. I’ve seen the latter two, and while I enjoyed some of the performances, both came up weak in the end. Now we have Luhrmann, who seems to have blended Fitzgerald’s novel with his own ‘Moulin Rouge!‘ and given it a good wash. While its grand 3D visuals, techno-inspired epic parties, and a soundtrack by Jay-Z, Jack White and Beyoncé might strike a bitter chord with fans of the novel, rest assured that Luhrmann stays fairly faithful to the book.
‘Gatsby’ starts off in grainy black and white, as some dull music rolls out during the opening credits, which morph into highly colorful 3D as if the theatre curtains were drawn up to show us that green light from the end of Daisy’s pier. We cut to Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a therapist’s office, trying to explain what went down in the summer of 1922 when he lived in West Egg, New York. As he begins, we get a montage of New York being built and the city’s successes and declines. The archival footage mixed with the CG footage looks great with an impressive view of 1922 New York City. The only other film I’ve seen that has matched this detailed recreation of the old Big Apple was Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’.
We learn that Nick was a young graduate of Yale and wanted to try his hand on Wall Street. He moved into a small house smashed between two large riverfront mansions. Across the river are his old Yale buddy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Daisy (Carey Mulligan). One of Nick’s wealthy neighbors is the reclusive and impressive Jay Gatsby, who throws excessive and expensive parties almost every night, where politicians, gangsters, celebrities and socialites show up. However, none of them actually knows Gatsby or has even seen him before.
Not until 35 minutes into the film do we even get our first glimpse of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), with a brilliant entrance and introduction. He simply owns the world with his smile and confidence. On the other side of the lake, Daisy still longs for her long-lost love (Gatsby, of course), whom she had last seen five years earlier, before he left for the war. While he was away, she married Tom, who’s a pompous bully, to put it lightly.
DiCaprio really puts his heart on his sleeve and bares his soul to be embraced or rejected by Daisy. DiCaprio’s performance, as he awkwardly tries to talk with and move around the love he hasn’t seen for many years, should win him an Oscar. It’s endearing to watch this coming from a person like Gatsby.
Meanwhile, during the affair between Gatsby and Daisy, Tom has an affair of his own with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the local wife of a man who runs a down-and-out garage on the outskirts of town. Their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debiki), a golf pro and socialite, tries to keep Daisy happy and Tom unaware of what’s transpiring until everyone ends up at the Plaza Hotel, spilling their guts about their feelings. This leads to car wreck, and then to Gatsby’s pool, which might be the best shot scene in the movie.
Luhrmann really slows things down after an hour into the film so that we can see Gatsby’s love for Daisy grow as he tries to recreate the passion from when they first met, even though Nick tells him that he can’t repeat the past. It’s here where we lose Nick in the story. He only serves to narrate from time to time and becomes a bit tedious as the other characters are far more interesting.
Maguire does a great job as Nick as far as that can go, being that he’s more of a fly-on-the-wall and sides with Gatsby throughout, even though he might not have in the book. Edgerton plays a mean Tom to a tee. You hate the guy, but that’s a good thing and he gives an amazing performance. Fisher and Debiki are solid as well whenever they’re on-screen. Mulligan is charged with the difficult task of Daisy. Daisy is different for everyone. She is the American dream girl, which could be bad or good for some people. Mulligan does an okay job here, but I felt like I wanted more from her. She seems to tone down her role a bit, which leaves her relationship with Gatsby something less than desired. Truly shining above the rest is DiCaprio. He is Jay Gatsby. His persona, charm and character are flawless. He’s truly larger than life here, and one of the best parts of the film. Every time he’s off-screen, you want him back on-screen.
The picture itself is incredible with its detailed sets, lavish parties and amazing costumes. The film is also in 3D, which I found less than thrilling. Sure, it has some added depth, but it’s mostly unnecessary and took me out of the story. I think the story could do just fine without the added effect.
With Luhrmann’s beautiful direction and Jay-Z’s music contribution (which is a breath of fresh air and I think coincides with Fitzgerald’s love of modern music), ‘The Great Gatsby’ is worth seeing and might just be the best adaptation yet of the iconic novel. I can’t wait to get my hands on this soundtrack and watch the movie on Blu-ray in glorious high definition.