Do you know about Gatsby? That mysteriously eccentric fellow who lives up in West Egg? Chances are that if you completed 11th grade English, you do. But the real question is whether you have met BAZ LUHRMANN’S Gatsby. I will come right out and say it. I love the novel The Great Gatsby. Of all the books I was required to read in high school (and probably college for that matter), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s succinct masterpiece of the Jazz Age was my favorite. It is one of the few grade school classics that I have revisited several times and plan to likely do again. It also has the lofty literary pedigree of being “unfilmable.” However, that reputation may have been earned simply because the 1974 iteration of the story (and only major adaptation until now) is truly unwatchable. Some have waited decades for a film to capture the depth and speakeasy wonders of that book and its era. Yet, from this decadent 3D extravaganza’s earliest salvo teaser, featuring music by Jay-Z and U2, I knew that that was not what we were getting. Baz Luhrmann, cinematic genius, madman or all of the above, lovingly adapted the novel to match his own frantically fabulous sensibilities. And whether his cultural collage of roaring ’20s opulence works will swing wildly from individual to individual.
If you do not know the story of J. Gatsby and his undying quest for the green spectral light at the end of Daisy’s dock, shame on you. But to put it simply: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a bitter and broken man when he recalls his golden summer in New York. A once aspiring writer with a well-pedigreed name, Nick curiously moves to the new moneyed frontier of West Egg to pursue a career in trading bonds on Wall Street. Loosely based on the Hamptons and Great Neck villages in Long Island, Nick’s West Egg looks across the water to East Egg. It is there that his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives in gilded splendor with highborn husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick is not one to judge much of anyone and puts up little resistance at hiding Tom’s dalliances with a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fisher) in the gray wastelands that separate the nestled eggs from New York City. Nor does he have much thought on Daisy’s empty mothering of her daughter and long sighs of regret. The only thing that truly seems to peak Nick’s curiosity is the shadowy and enigmatic man who lives in the castle neighboring the tiny Carraway bungalow. Gatsby. One day that curiosity is forever quenched when Nick receives an invitation from J. Gatsby to one of his little soirées. Actually, he receives the only invitation as every other man, woman and child with money in the greater New York area already knows to show up there, nightly. The excess of a gin-soaked Gatsby party can only be outdone by the man himself. After meeting Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Nick’s life becomes a fever dream of fast cars, faster women and bright New York lights. And Gatsby only asks for one thing in return for such devoted friendship: To invite Daisy over for tea.The Great Gatsby is not a subtle movie. As always, Luhrmann paints not only with a broad brush, but by chucking cartons of paint onto the canvass. For such a morally complex (or dead) story as Fitzgerald’s, many will cry foul about this approach. When these characters take on the archetypal stature of Greek gods, how can they possibly be human? But the beauty of creating such an artificial world is that the hypocrisies and cruelties of these people do not vanish, but reemerge as operatic extremes. The exhilaration with which Luhrmann imagines Gatsby’s golden city pulsates with more rhythm and life than any Prohibition-era fiction in recent memory. The camera swoops and soars through the ever-rising New York skyline and under the back alley parties like a flapper on absinthe looking for a dance partner. Except this ain’t the Charleston. Luhrmann has brought back with the highest style his most infamous staple. After doing a whole period film, 2008’s Australia, with only contemporary music, the filmmaker behind Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) has returned to his anachronistic ways. With a score and soundtrack supervised by Jay-Z, the film bumps ‘n grinds to the sounds of Young Hov himself, as well as Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey, Florence + the Machine, and more. There is just not a whole lot of jazz in this Jazz Age film. For literary and historical purists, this may be sacrilege. Yet, the unhinged kaleidoscopic fury with which the effect works is undeniable. When “Jazzy” himself comes on to sing about hundred dollar bills while the rich and powerful of New York debase their blue blood superiority in Gatsby’s pool, it is a history-bending wonder to behold. I do not buy from those who sell that hip-hop is to the early 21st century what jazz was to the infant 20th. However, the juxtaposition bares a freewheeling nature that actually may capture the madness of which Fitzgerald wrote better than any standard follies scene. Also, Luhrmann shows equal audacity in trying to cinematically reappropriate “Rhapsody in Blue” for his own New York movie. I do not think he displaces Woody Allen’s iconic use of the Gershwin piece in Manhattan, but damned if he does not try in the grandest of style.
This movie envisions a roaring ’20s elitist class whose debauchery would make Romans blush. Such a bold, fourth-wall breaking approach does a far better job of capturing the hustle of the period, as well as its arrogance. The post-war frenzy that overtook the wealthy in that time is brought into startling focus by Luhrmann, who bounces it back to our own world where such decadence is as equally accepted and ignored by a staggering economic income gap. Of course, this is all in service to the story of Gatsby and his quest to recapture his glory at that dock. It is one of American literature’s greatest tragedies and one that is only somewhat done service here. For all of his adaptation’s eccentric bells and whistles, Luhrmann stays staunchly loyal to the well-worn text. There are even select passages, including the novel’s final sentences, that appear on screen as Maguire’s affable melancholy narrates the proceedings. Luhrmann’s direct approach brings the book’s themes into a constant, immediate focus. From the sweltering room in the Plaza to the godlike eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg overseeing the valley of ashes along the road to New York, nothing is lost in the transition, save for complexity. Despite Luhrmann’s daring-do, the moral intricacies may always be best served by the meditation of the page. On its own, Luhrmann makes a captivating flick, but the true consequences of a conscionably bankrupt society can feel papered over, especially in how glossy Gatsby and Daisy’s past has been presented. The ugliness of her less-than-angelic motives and the lollipop hanging over his head reside stubbornly in the book.That is not to say there isn’t a great character piece here. DiCaprio has never been more strangely restrained or captivating than as J. Gatsby. His anti-hero is a figure of whip-fast empathy and seduction, if just by the way his put-on accent curls around “old sport.” He is so enticing that he never looks the fool, even as the egg on his face threatens to cover his eyes. Similarly, Mulligan brings a chilling air of ice ready to break at any moment in all her scenes. She is both a victim of her era and a creature of infinite weakness. Gatsby’s inability to see that his self-made success is better than their aristocratic snobbery is still as painfully infuriating as ever. And Maguire brings the earnest Midwestern sincerity needed while avoiding the pitfalls of passivity associated with Nick Carraway.
Ultimately though, as great as the whole cast truly is, this is a movie that thrives on the energy of its setting and the absurdity of our own. It has a ludicrous style that will not appeal to everyone, especially those looking for an adaptation as masterful and emotionally nuanced as its literary heritage. I do not know if such a movie can ever exist, but I knew walking in that this was a Baz Luhrmann experience for our age and no other. It will not ensnare those who view the source material under three feet of museum plated glass, but that sort of hagiography can only lead to earnest snoozers like the 1974 film. This movie prevails on an intoxicatingly vivacious energy that is uniquely and wholly its own. To which I say: Well done, old sport. Den of Geek Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars