In retrospect, it’s an absolute feat that I somehow navigated the waters of the high school English curriculum without having to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby. Classic statements such as “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” sound vaguely familiar, but I ultimately realized that I was going into Baz Luhrmann’s gaudy 3D adaptation of Fitzgerald’s work completely foreign to the storyline. While I cannot muse as to whether this film lives up to its source material (or the 1974 Robert Redford counterpart, for that matter), I can definitively confirm that this Gatsby is a flamboyant, fun affair.
For a flick weighing in at almost two and a half hours, the plot is surprisingly simple: pseudo-writer and high society neophyte, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), becomes enchanted by and entangled in the mysterious past of his charming and secretive neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nick’s entrancement with his neighbor’s lavish lifestyle is equaled by Gatsby’s connection to Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives with her blue-blood husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), across the water from Gatsby’s Long Island mansion. A “kaleidoscopic carnival” of excess, possession, and obsession ensues.
Critics will pan Luhrmann’s restless, style-over-substance approach to the fiction; after all, his Gatsby is a vibrant splash of melodrama set against Jay-Z music (in fact, Mr. Carter gets an executive producer credit for supervising the outstanding soundtrack). But what do we expect from Baz Luhrmann? This is the director that gave Romeo & Juliet guns and infused Elton John with 19th century Paris in Moulin Rouge. In The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann goes all in, deftly framing each scene to send the audience down a rabbit hole of sweeping camera movements and endless dissolves. The result, especially in 3D, is a kinetic dreamscape of controlled chaos. It is perhaps the most effective use of Luhrmann-esque editing we’ve seen seen to date.
His cast matches the writer/director’s enthusiasm for the material. Leonardo DiCaprio is electrifying to watch as Jay Gatsby. He embodies the role with a paralyzing charm and captivating inscrutability that completely justifies Tobey Maguire’s doe-eyed Nick (it’s so believable that I wonder if the actors’ off-screen friendship functions similarly). Carey Mulligan is serviceable as Daisy, frustratingly spoiled and fawned over, but it is Joel Edgerton that impresses as Tom Buchanan. His deceptive, stubborn brute proves to be the perfect foil for Gatsby.
Extravagance begets emptiness, and intentionally or not, Luhrmann’s film echoes that theme. I would argue that The Great Gatsby is a satisfying reflection of its protagonist. But hey, who am I to philosophize– I didn’t even read the book!