The Great Gatsby explores the world of 1920s New York City, a mecca of decadence and exuberance that young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) discovers as he relocates from the midwest to the rim of Long Island. Inhabiting a forgotten cottage amongst the sprawling estates of the newly rich, Carraway finds himself living in the shadow of an enigmatic neighbor named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-made man swirled in rumor and myth, whose fantastical parties are the talk of New York.
Nick inevitably makes the acquaintance of Gatsby, and is quickly drawn into a love-struggle between his mysterious neighbor and his wealthy cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives just across the bay with her brutish, philandering, blue-blooded husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). With wealth, power, class and desire all brewing into a perfect storm cloud overhead, Nick soon learns that the games of aristocrats leave many shattered lives in their wake.
Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet) is a filmmaker unlike any other, and he once again transforms a classic work into a living, pulsating, cinematic experience that borders on surrealist art (for better or worse). With a cast of actors who each deliver impeccable performances and some clever (but sure to be divisive) ties between the bygone era of the “Roaring Twenties” and the modern age, Luhrmann actually manages to expand upon the themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, while simultaneously struggling to endow the hollow story with heart and emotion.
Visually, Great Gatsby is once again a showcase of Luhrmann’s wonderfully outlandish imagination and sharp technical precision. Nostalgics costumed in their best ’20s-era garments, won’t be disappointed with the sequences of lavish party and wild excess that are like dreams come true for the retro crowd. If there were an award for “Best Director – Party or Musical Sequence,” then Lurhmann would win hands down; it won’t be surprising if this film pushes the culture even further towards a 1920s revival (already seen in the recent resurgence of speakeasy-themed bars, mixology cocktails, ’20s-themed fashion, etc…).
Gatsby 2013 also functions (stylistically speaking) as a ‘living novel’ of sorts, and there many creative uses of effects and sequencing to remind us that this is all some iconoclastic fairy tale. This is especially true toward the latter half of the film, when Carraway (an aspiring writer) begins to enter his artist space, and Fitzgerald’s elegant prose begins to fill the slow in-between moments, at times being scribbled across the face of the screen before vanishing into the past (see what I did there?). Elements like symbolism, motifs and metaphor are not so much adapted as re-imagined (to great effect) by Luhrmann, and in terms of scope and depth, the film certainly favors the “literary” in “literary adaptation.” Yet, above all the social commentary subtext, the central soap opera storyline (while arguably basic and somewhat bland) functions just fine for those summer movie romance-seekers who are not that inclined towards literary analysis.
As dubious as the prospect sounded on paper, Lurhmann actually puts 3D to excellent use, utilizing the immersive capability of the format to expand the fantasy world he creates. Party scenes literally take on a whole new dimension when viewed in 3D, proving a line uttered early on by one character, “Big parties are more intimate.” Of course, not all of the 3D is that compelling: static scenes of dialogue or monologues (of which there are a few) don’t make much use of the stereoscopic dimension, and there is a look of diorama-esque artifice whenever the story moves out of the Long Island mansions and into the impressive recreation of early 20th century New York City. Despite some flat moments, however, the film is overall worth experiencing in the 3D format.
The cast is excellent, led by another great performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, who comes in and owns the role of Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s titular character has always been a difficult nut to crack – whether on the page or onscreen (see: Robert Redford’s portrayal in the 1974 version); however, DiCaprio embraces the contradictions and complexities of the man – charming, suave, smart, shady, insecure, naive, volatile – and melds them into a tour de force performance. He’s cool, at times funny, at times pitiful, sometimes frightening – in short, he is likely going to be the definitive take on Gatsby for quite some time.
Carey Mulligan is equally good at breathing life into the ethereal character of Daisy, who is at once beautiful, listless, passionate and pampered. Like DiCaprio, Mulligan captures the full range of the character necessary to challenge perception (is she a trampled flower or an ensnaring weed?) – and above all else, the pair have great chemistry simmering beneath their stoic, mannered facades; a fine romantic core to power the film. In this world where manners and breeding trump passion, there is inevitably a hollowness to drama – but again, that has as much to do with the subject matter of Fitzgerald’s novel as it does with Luhrmann’s film.
Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty) is one of two big surprises in the cast. The actor has been steadily putting in good work for the last ten years (after a breakout bit role in the Star Wars prequels), and he’s certainly hitting his stride. It’s not just anyone who can go toe-to-toe with DiCaprio, but Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan battles for every scene he’s in, and walks off with them more often than not. And for a character who can so easily slip into caricature, Edgerton manages to keep Tom as well-rounded and complex as Daisy and Gatsby, giving us a worthy love triangle.
The other surprise in the cast is newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Daisy’s friend (and famous female golfer) Jordan Baker. With her lanky, statuesque beauty and wide, haunting eyes, Debiki is almost too dominant in her supporting role (not that I’m complaining, per se). She’ll definitely find more work after this.
Isla Fisher brings her plucky good looks and Wedding Crashers wildness to her bit role as Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, while Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) continues to outshine the material he’s given, playing Myrtle’s cuckolded gear-head husband, George.
Finally, Tobey Maguire does a fine job as the walking plot device that is Nick Carraway. Called out early on by Tom as a known voyeur, Nick’s job is indeed to take in the aristocratic world around him – and Maguire’s wide-eyed stare is perfectly-suited to the task. The former Spider-Man works in a bit of comedy and charm where possible, but is mostly just good at being the unimposing everyman who leads us through the story.
The most divisive aspect of Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby adaptation will certainly be the soundtrack masterminded by Sean “Jay-Z” Carter. With its modern hip-hop and pop ballad tunes (read: Beyonce), some will argue that the anachronistic mix of setting and soundtrack interrupts the immersive effect of Luhrmann’s world-building. While that argument is valid, in my observation the music is not employed frivolously or randomly, but is rather used at key moments with either winking irony or sharp insight into how the world back then (with excess celebrated to the tune of Jazz) is reflected in the world of today (with excess celebrated to the tune of hip-hop). Indeed, there is a whole sub-textual narrative in the film about the influence and role of African-American culture in American culture, further proving that Luhrmann’s film is as much a visual novel as Fitzgerald’s was a written one (with varied degrees of success between the two).
For those looking for something more sophisticated (but no less visually entertaining ) than the average summer blockbuster, Great Gatsby 3D offers a mix of old Hollywood grandeur and new Hollywood edge (again, for better or worse). At the very least, high school students everywhere have been rewarded with a nice, palpable shortcut to get through this particular English class assignment.
The Great Gatsby is now playing in theaters. It is 143 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.