I’m happy to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised by Baz Luhrman’s latest magnum opus “The Great Gatsby”, arguably his best film since 1995’s “Romeo + Juliet”. Honestly, I was expecting a sedentary snooze-fest treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel similar to the 1974 Robert Redford version, but I really should have known that the man who made “Moulin Rouge” would handily capture the spirit of the Jazz Age. This latest Gatsby is certainly not a flawless film; it is entertaining and in places even tender in its portrait of a man driven to riches only to be worthy of the one woman who would make his gilded world whole.
Because I’ve never read “The Great Gatsby” I can’t tell how heavily Luhrman and Craig Pearce (co-writer w/Luhrman of the film’s screenplay) drew upon Fitzgerald’s prose in crafting the deeply expressive narration delivered by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) which elevates the film above the commonplace.
The film opens with Nick, a likeable young man under treatment at a sanitarium for a host of emotional issues including depression, alcoholism and insomnia who relates to his psychiatrist the events of the summer of 1922... Hoping find a place for himself in the Wall Street boom of the 20’s, Nick had rented a modest house out on New York’s Long Island -- beside the fairy tale castle mansion of an enigmatic man famous to all, but known by few, a man called Gatsby.
What Nick planned as a summer of financial studies became an adventure into the private lives and excesses of the ultra-rich and powerful. Nick’s cousin, Daisy, married to Tom Buchanan, an adulterous heir of old money, lived on the old money side of the bay opposite the Nuevo Riche side where both Nick & Gatsby resided. Between a sordid lower Manhattan apartment orgy with Tom and the almost czarist extravagance of Gatsby’s weekend happenings Nick became both insider and outsider, viewing the world of the idle rich from “within and without”. When Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio) took Nick into his confidence concerning cousin Daisy, Nick developed into both agent and sole true friend to the millionaire.
Gatsby was a man from Daisy’s past, a man who went off to WW 1 but never returned because of his poverty. Driven by a strong vision of what he could be and a powerful optimism, Gatsby spent years reinventing himself to amass the fortune he felt he needed to secure a future for himself and Daisy. It was no accident Gatsby bought the palatial mansion directly across the bay for Daisy and Tom. Likewise, Gatsby’s mad weekend bacchanalias were not mere frivolous extravagances; he yearned each weekend that Daisy would be enticed to travel across the bay and they would meet, again, and recapture the romance of their youth.
Nick was to be instrumental to the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, and in the process taken in to Gatsby’s empty, lovelorn sphere as well. There, Nick recognized Gatsby as possessing the kind of heart money can’t buy or create and we, like Nick, come to wonder if Daisy may not be good enough for Gatsby. How shallow and materialistic was Daisy that she wept uncontrollably at the beauty of Gatsby’s silken shirts? In the end, Nick assured a confused but hopeful Gatsby that he was better than, worth more than, those rich folks he aspired to join, that he was “worth the whole damn bunch of them.”
It’s hard to tell for me whether Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance, at times seemingly wooden while at other times painfully natural, was intentionally so, old sport. The millionaire Gatsby was played with a larger than life forced charm that was hard to swallow from an actor like Di Caprio, but when Gatsby first reunites with Daisy that façade fractured to reveal a poor Romeo in romantic awe of his Juliet. In the most intimate scenes Di Caprio’s Gatsby was human, but he too often put up his wealthy front even to Nick, who by the end understood the source of that tragically guarded nature.
“The Great Gatsby” is as mentioned above a flawed film. Luhrman incorporated modern music into this Jazz Age masterwork and sometimes it works, other times it only served to break the spell of the film and remind me that I was watching a movie. Similarly, Luhrman’s, poetic realist colors and dynamic visual style were occasionally obtrusive and again broke this film’s spell. Tobey Maguire was amiable (Maguire always is!) as Nick but the performance was scarcely brilliant, evidence that with a good script even a mediocre performance can carry a film. Carey Mulligan - perhaps best known popularly as Sally Sparrow from the legendary “Blink” episode of Dr. Who - portrays Daisy with vulnerability and grace; still, Luhrman really needed to pull her aside for those scenes where she’s supposed to be expressing the boredom of the idle rich and utter the single word every director should know: “Less”. These minor flaws did at times pull me out of the film’s story but never for long, after the first 20 minutes I was too rapt by the sheer majesty of Baz Luhrman’s creation and Fitzgerald’s characters to care.
I don’t know if “The Great Gatsby” will be remembered next Oscar season, at least not for the acting which was solid but never extraordinary. However, I do feel that this may be the first must-see film of the 2013 summer movie season; it has it all, music, love, great visuals, depth of emotion and classic source material that should bring in casual teen-agers and ardent cinemaphiles alike. See “The Great Gatsby”, a provocative vision of the opulence and emptiness of 1920s America.