For the fourth time, filmmakers have took it upon themselves to adapt the great American novel of the 1930s- F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For those unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s great work (like myself), the film centers around a struggling writer Nick Carroway (Maguire) who has given up on his artistic dream in favor of a burgeoning career on Wall Street. His home is across the bay from his well-to-do debutante cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan, in a dubiously-cast role). Carroway found a cheap little cottage deep in the woods in a neighborhood curiously called West Egg. The only other home nearby is nothing short of a palace, the home of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, pitch perfect, as expected). Gatsby finds a friend in Carroway and enlists his help in winning back his long-lost love, Nick’s cousin Daisy. Finding himself in a wonderful position in which New York’s most famous man needs something from him, he of course accepts, expecting to please both Gatsby and his cousin. The rest of the story is a portrait of the era’s decadence and debauchery- enormous parties held in Gatsby’s mansion, orgies, burlesque houses, and all the cheap liquor one would need to fuel such madness. Nick serves as a bystander, on the outside looking in (“within and without” as he puts it), and he is often shocked and repulsed by the things he witnesses at the hands of his friends and family. All of this weighs down on him, and at the opening of the film, we find Carroway opening up to a psychiatrist in a sanitarium, where he is encouraged to write his story, hence, The Great Gatsby.
The Jazz Age is, of course, infamous for all of the debauchery Nick witnessed. The glitz and glamour, the pomp and circumstance – it’s all there. If you’ve watched his polarizing adaptation of Romeo and Juliet or his lauded Moulin Roueg!, then you’re surely aware that Baz Luhrmann would never miss an opportunity to bombard his viewers with as many swiftly-zoomed tracking shots and lavish visual designs (which, by the way, are worth the price of admission alone) as a film about the Jazz Age would imply. The end result is a film that is an ambitious MTV-era visual treat that remains just restrained enough to keep it on this side of campy. In this dazzling spectacle, as is often the case, Luhrmann loses many chances to tug the heartstrings a touch harder. It always feels marginally “melodramatic”- clearly intended- but never manages to make that full leap to “dramatic.” A major obstacle in that leap is Jay-Z’s credit as executive producer. His presence can be felt at every emotional (happy, sad, or otherwise) moment of the film, and it is almost always unwelcome. The hip-hop beats during the dance sequences are apparently supposed to draw the connection from 1920s New York to today’s youth, but we don’t need butchered covers of Amy Winehouse or jazz standards to do it for us. Lana Del Rey’s love theme, “Young and Beautiful,” occurs several times during the film and is really the only part of the modern soundtrack that isn’t jarring or disaffecting. That being said- the score of the film is spot on. As is the first moment the audience is treated to Leonardo Dicaprio’s signature smile set to a backdrop of fireworks and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The misplaced and misguided soundtrack doesn’t take away many of the movie’s strengths- the performances of the lead actors (but especially DiCaprio), the beautiful visual design, the adept adaptation of the novel, and its great pacing (clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, but it never feels like it drags).
Many viewers may identify most with Nick- horrified by the artificiality, hypocrisy, and devastatingly-low morality of his peers and his generation. Many may identify with Daisy- the victim torn between the love of the brute and the dashing rich gentleman. And many may find themselves identifying with Gatsby- a man who would stop at nothing to re-capture the heart of his love, at any cost. And still, many viewers may find themselves in adrift in a visual spectacle, being tugged every which way by characters who, by and large, have no redeeming qualities. The film leaves all of these doors open but does little to close any of them. But, when all of these doors look so damn good, who cares?
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language