Jay Gatsby, the doomed millionaire and star of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, is one of the most famous characters of the twentieth century. Representing the ultimate self-made-American man he is, at once, a romantic, fatally idealistic figure and a poseur with grandiose ideas, much like the new Baz Luhrman movie about Gatsby’s short but eventful life.
We first meet narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) when he is at a sanatorium being treated for severe alcoholism and bouts of depression. Part of his treatment involves writing a memoir about the events that brought him to his current state. Flashback to the Jazz Age, early 1920s in New York. Nick is working as a stockbroker in the city while living in a wealthy enclave known as West Egg. His neighbor is the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio), whose ornate mansion—more of a palace really—plays hosts to wild weekend parties that attract a mix of the era’s well-heeled and round-heeled.
Across the water is the estate of Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). She’s a debutant; he’s old money, a sports star with a short temper and a roving eye.
Nick soon learns that Gatsby was Daisy’s first love. That’s not the only secret in Gatsby’s life, however. Turns out he isn’t the aristocrat he claims to be, but the son of dirt-poor farmers who reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby, making a fortune bootlegging alcohol and manipulating the stock market.
Gatsby and Daisy pick up where they left off, but Gatsby proves unable to control the future as adeptly as he created his past.
Baz Luhrman may be the perfect person to retell Jay Gatsby’s Roaring Twenties’ story. Equally at home with razzle-dazzle and substance, he captures the tone of the Jazz Age while still allowing the story’s deeper resonance to shine through the gloss.
The movie’s first hour focuses on the superficial. Luhrman’s restless camera sweeps and swoops, never settling in one place for too long. It’s so over the top it makes the effervescent “Moulin Rouge!” look subdued but it also captures the unbridled optimism of the age. Gatsby’s parties are bacchanals complete with giant champagne bottles that shoot glitter over crowds of scantily clad flappers, gallons of bootleg whiskey served by white-gloved waiters and other “riotous amusements on offer.”
It’s eye candy, pure and simple, and yet the sense of doom that hangs over the beautiful and damned characters in the story is palpable. Without it this would be just another story about pretty people doing pretty-people things, but Luhrman broadens the story to inject some real-life feeling into a mannered story about a life that feels unreal.
He stays quite faithful to Fitzgerald’s book—even including the novel’s famous last line, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” which was noticeably absent from the Robert Redford version—but has structured the story to have a cinematic arc.
As the story changes so does the look and feel of the film—it slows down, luxuriating in the details, not only of the character’s lives, but of their situation as well. It’s an extremely stylish movie, but aside from some curious music choices—like the anachronism of a Jay-Z rap blaring over 1920’s NYC footage—the style doesn’t overwhelm the narrative.
As Gatsby Di Caprio not only makes the best movie star entrance ever—complete with swelling music, fireworks and zooming camera—but also plays a more tortured Gatsby than we’ve seen before. He’s smooth and slick in an “Old sport” kind of way, but bubbling just under the surface is an inner turmoil that trumps the mannered façade.
Maguire and Edgerton hand in effective performances—Maguire is a passive observer for the most part, Edgerton more aggressive—but Carey Mulligan steals the show.
Daisy is one of Fitzgerald’s “bright precious things,” a hothouse flower and Mulligan has a face capable of simultaneously showing great happiness and profound sadness, a duality that serves her character well. She effortlessly tosses off shallow lines like, “Your life is adorable,” while digging deep to convey Daisy’s conflicted nature.
“The Great Gatsby” is a flashy, in-your-face 3D movie but despite the sophisticated use of special effects it still maintains a classic feel, driven by a respect for the story and interesting performances.