by Tim Gordon
Several years after putting his indelible stamp on a huge musical production with mixed results, Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s next challenge is adapting one of the most beloved and acclaimed books for a new generation in the glitzy big-screen spectacle, The Great Gatsby.
Since the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s in 1925, there have been six adaptations for the big screen including an African-American version, G, directed by Christopher Scott Cherot. The well-documented story centers on a neighbor, Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) who recounts his various encounters with mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) during the heydays of the Roaring Twenties.
Told in flashback by a impressed Nick, he takes audiences back to a time of class divisions between the old-money residents of the East Egg and the new-money denizens who live in the West Egg. In his memory, there is no more exciting place to be on the West side than at the home of his mysterious neighbor that he discovers after he receives an invitation to party at the home of Gatsby.
In Luhrmann’s world, Gatsby’s mansion is a combination of Mardi Gras, Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat and a Prince concert all wrapped up into one. Celebrities, politicians and the underworld meet and mingle every weekend much to the delight of the low-key almost invisible host, Gatsby who easily dissolves into the revelry of the crowd. He is immediately smitten and taken by his glitzy, rich neighbor.
While Nick lives next to West Egg royalty, across the bay his favorite cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) are also living in the lap of luxury. Joined by Daisy’s best friend and constant companion, Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), they live in the bubble of wealth and privilege and looking their noses down on the working poor of the East Egg community, which includes gas station attendant George Wilson (Jason Clarke) and his wife Myrtle (Isla Fisher), who is also Tom’s mistress.
As Nick becomes further entwined in Gatsby elaborate plans, slowly the reluctant millionaire slowly begins to reveal his plan – to win back his lost love, Daisy. Building his own world around her, Gatsby is a man with secrets and of course is not who Nick or us thought he was.
Luhrmann, accustomed to painting in wide broad strokes, believe it or not, actually tones it down in this film. During the film’s early scenes, he displays his usual bravado and exuberance but once the story begins to develop, he delivers a consistent, coherent narrative that is occasionally interrupted by composer Jay-Z erratic score. He also benefits from a wonderful performance from DiCaprio, who has the classic Hollywood look and was simply born to play this role. In every scene, DiCaprio radiates and, much like Robert Downey, Jr. in the Iron Man franchise, is the primary reason we watch – and care.
Maguire is solid as the narrator and soul of the story and Gatsby only true friend. His long friendship with DiCaprio is one of the principle reasons that the two seem so natural around one another in their scenes and interactions with one another. While Mulligan would not have been our first choice, she also does a fine job of capturing the beauty and shallow soul of Daisy.
Originally schedule for release during the awards season last year, it is still a curious move to release the film in the summer instead of when it most certainly would have been an awards contender. While never having the opportunity to read the book or see any of the early adaptations of the story, it was refreshing to take in the story without the weight of any preconceived notions or expectations. At it’s core, The Great Gatsby is a sad love story, but despite that Luhrmann’s story largely succeeds because of DiCaprio’s magnificent and timeless performance that surely would make Fitzgerald proud.