It’s touch-and-go at times for the latest big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby. But in a hotly contested three-way wrestling match between Baz Luhrman, 3D technology, and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s Fitzgerald that gets the project in a head-lock and pins this tale of Jazz Age angst firmly on the summer’s must-see movie list.
Considering that Aussie director Baz Luhrman was the man who brought Elton John to the party that was Moulin Rouge — not to mention inserting Palm Beach drug gangs into William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet — The Great Gatsby shows some real discipline in getting to the meat of Fitzgerald’s sophisticated 1925 novel.
Despite the occasional rap mantra or disco beat, and the distraction of stereoscopic flourishes, this plugged-in Gatsby reverbates with Fitzgerald’s lost generation characters and still-relevant themes.
It’s also good to see Leonardo DiCaprio take on a role that is actually sympathetic after recent turns as Howard Hughes, various disturbed FBI agents, and a brutal slave holder. DiCaprio is very much the central focus here as the title character, who appears rather late in the film after much sinister speculation over exactly how he came by his fortune.
One does not imbed oneself amid the mansions of “West Egg,” Long Island without having a blue-blooded pedigree, and yet that is what Jay Gatsby has done, and his neighbors would like to know how, if not why.
It is the why that soon engages us, as Gatsby reveals himself to be little more than a lovesick schoolboy pining for the Louisville beauty that got away, Daisy Buchanan, now married to a genuine rich boy with white supremacist leanings, Tom, and residing in West Egg.
Gatsby is determined to win back Daisy’s hand and redefine his own destiny, which makes him a hero in the eyes of the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway.
Fitzgerald’s hero-worship structure is the biggest obstacle to any dramatic adaptation, since it means we are less often in the company of the great Gatsby than with the not-so-great Nick. Casting wide-eyed Tobey McGuire in the part just adds to the new movie’s burdens.
Screenwriter Craig Pearce (in literary cahoots with Luhrman) comes up with one nifty solution, I think, by making Nick a recovering “morbid alcoholic” in treatment after falling off the wagon following the events in the film. He is instructed to keep a journal of his thoughts, and that journal becomes a rich sampling of Fitzgerald’s golden prose, which becomes an animated presence in the film. Pages from the handwritten journal reinforce the settings, and at times the text even floats out of the action in 3D like the smoke from the caterpillar’s hookah in Alice in Wonderland.
No cast could live up to the nuances of a Fitzgerald insight, but Luhrman keeps reminding us that this is cinema, not literature, and his emphasis is on pure decorative fun.
The best self-contained sequences involve flapper-era indulgences, like jazz, bathtub gin, fringe dresses and tiaras. The filmmaker seems to be echoing the words of Jay Gatsby to Daisy: “If anything is not to your liking, I’ll change it.”
Carey Mulligan seems too often at a loss to be much of an asset to the film. She doesn’t seem to know why Gatsby is so determined to have her now, and she doesn’t know why she married Tom, for that matter. She doesn’t project the conflicted intelligence and doomed wit of a true Fitzgerald heroine, but this is DiCaprio’s dream, so who cares if this Daisy is a Buchanan or a MacGuffin?
Much better is Joel Edgerton as the self-important Tom Buchanan, and especially newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as aloof trophy-wife-in-waiting, Jordan Baker. One wishes she could have been given more to do in this version, but the film itself will no doubt be considered a career highpoint in the resume of everyone involved.
Running Time: 143 minutes.
- Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
- Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
- Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson
- Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway
- Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan
The Great Gatsby (Rated PG-13 for gun violence and implied immorality) opens Friday at movie theaters everywhere.
Here is where the film is playing in the DC/VA/MD area,
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.