Luhrmann delivers a Deco-licious, surprisingly effective ‘Great Gatsby’
With Baz Luhrmann in the driver’s seat, the slick, shiny roadster that is The Great Gatsby could go either way. This meeting of the florid visual stylist (Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel of the Jazz Age might be a head-on collision of inappropriate style, anachronistic music, and frantic bombast over substance. Or it might just as easily be a brilliant reimagining of an American classic revitalized to resonate with a new generation.
In fact, there are glimmers of each of these possible scenarios in Luhrmann’s Gatsby. Fortunately, the more self-conscious stylistic touches—jarring Jay-Z rap music to convey the frenetic energy of the postwar Twenties; gigantic, overly-choreographed party sequences shot from above like Busby Berkeley routines—mostly occur early on, while Luhrmann is setting his stage. Once the set-up is established, Luhrmann ditches most of his tricks, letting the characters and their agendas propel the story for a surprisingly faithful and urgent account of Fitzgerald’s enduring tale of class, money, and shipwrecked dreams.
To make use of Fitzgerald’s shrewd observations on a war-weary America caught in the act of reinventing itself, Luhrmann employs a framing device set in 1929. The novel’s narrator, aspiring writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), now being treated for alcoholism, is encouraged to write down his story. As the tale unfolds in Nick’s memory, a great deal of Fitzgerald’s prose (occasionally even scrawling across the screen) is effectively preserved.
In the summer of 1922, Nick is one of a sea of youth thronging to New York City to shake off the horrors of the First World War. He gets a job trading bonds on Wall Street and moves into a tiny former caretaker’s cottage sandwiched in among the “new money” mansions on the East Egg of Long Island. The “old money” resides across the bay on the West Egg—including Nick’s cousin, Daisy (wistful plaintive Carey Mulligan) and her brutish, bigoted, unfaithful, and ferociously entitled husband, Tom Buchanan (a canny, edgy turn from the aptly-named Joel Edgerton), who is also Nick’s old college buddy. (“Life is something you dominate, Nick,” Tom tells him.)
Nick’s neighbor in the mansion next door is the famously elusive Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio); everyone flocks to his lavish parties, but no one knows anything about him, except for wildly speculative stories (mostly put out by Gatsby himself). The first time we actually see Gatsby’s face, the big reveal is accompanied by a crescendo of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and exploding skyrockets; Luhrmann knows how to stage an entrance. And DiCaprio doesn’t disappoint. His Gatsby comes complete with alluring smile, mystery, and vulnerability intact.
Gatsby is vulnerable over Daisy; he met and fell in love with her five years earlier, as a young soldier, too impoverished a “nobody” to marry her. Everything he’s made of himself since has been for her, Nick discovers, and he finds himself drawn into Gatsby’s scheme not only to win the unhappy Daisy back, but to make manifest Gatsby’s fervent dream that she has never loved anyone but him. Luhrmann pays considerable attention to a sequence in which Gatsby tries to extract a confession from Daisy that she never loved Tom. What Nick praises as his “hopefulness,” we see as delusional, but Luhrmann makes it a palpable matter of life and death to Gatsby.
Luhrmann’s attention to period detail is fabulous too, from the gorgeous black and white Art Deco Warner Bros. logo at the beginning to the Deco-licious costumes and production design, both by Catherine Martin. Luhrmann also has a canny sense of American culture in ferment. The five short years that separate Gatsby and Daisy from their former selves is shown to be a cultural eternity— women transition from long-haired, post-Victorian angels to bobbed, smoking, flappers (like Daisy’s golf pro friend, Jordan, played with maximum sass by Elizabeth Debicki), boys are baptized by the fire of war into men, and the old rules about money, sex, alcohol, and privilege no longer apply.
Things sag a bit in the midsection, as characters at odds make small talk and dart each other pregnant glances. But then, some wonderful visual comes along—like party revelers hoisting a giant champagne bottle that spews gold glitter—and we’re more than willing to go along for the ride.
THE GREAT GATSBY ★★★(out of four)
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, and Joel Edgerton. Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13. 143 minutes.