It’s been a long time since my high school English class, but I remember that The Great Gatsby was one of my favorites. It’s been dramatized a few times, including a 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. That version was a rather dull, literal interpretation of the book that offered little in the way of artistry. Now, director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet) reunites with Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) in a beautiful adaptation of the Fitzgerald classic.
The movie begins true to form with the introduction of Nick Carraway, played here by Tobey Maguire (Brothers). Nick is an observer, a spectator in a world to which he doesn’t actually belong, and our gateway to Gatsby. He lives on Long Island, renting a modest cottage across the sound from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Shame) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty). Their estate dwarfs Nick’s, as the “old money” Buchanans are well established.
The Island is divided into two sections, with Daisy and Tom on East Egg, and Nick on West Egg. As Nick acclimates himself to his new environment, he begins to hear whispers around town about Jay Gatsby, a mysterious resident of West Egg known for his lavish, opulent parties. He lives next door to Nick, but the two have never met. In fact, Gatsby is such a shadowy figure that for the first 20 or so minutes, we don’t even see him, we only hear about him in excited, hushed whispers. This is particularly true at one of Gatsby’s own parties, to which Nick is invited – but wading through the rumors only adds to Gatsby’s mystique. Is he a bootlegger? How did he make his fortune? As the speculation reaches a fever pitch, finally Nick meets his enigmatic host.
Gatsby’s noveau riche trappings initially do very little to entice the object of his affection, Daisy Buchanan. They had a brief dalliance before she married, but circumstances precluded their union. After returning from war, Gatsby did not have the means to provide for a woman such as Daisy, and this fact both drove and haunted him. Fast-forward five years to 1922, and Gatsby’s love for Daisy has intensified in its yearning. She is his motivation for everything: the parties and the decadent monument to capitalism that his mansion represents. The pair is ill fated, and the revelation of this immutable fact is beautifully tragic. I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because I hope you’re already familiar.
Baz Luhrmann is a true artist, and the cinematography was breathtaking. Certain scenes looked as if they could be paused, printed, framed, and hung on a wall. When Nick gets drunk for only the second time in his life, it is during a raucous party in the city with Tom Buchanan, Tom’s mistress, and her friends. Nick is torn between his loyalty to his cousin and friendship with Tom, but eventually casts his inhibitions aside. Luhrmann creates an unforgettable scene, a beautiful bombardment of color and sound unlike anything you’ve seen. It was like a Romare Bearden painting come to life.
Much ado has been made about the film’s anachronistic score, provided by Jay-Z. Luhrmann has employed anachronism in previous work, and I found it mostly effective here. “Who Gon Stop Me,” “No Church In the Wild,” and “100$ Bill” were completely on point in terms of their placement. I can’t say enough about this film, and I honestly don’t see what’s to dislike. Gatsby was a magical movie that juxtaposed the great opulence of a gilded age with the hollowness of hedonism and unrequited love. The performances were brilliant and haunting, particularly those of DiCaprio and Maguire. DiCaprio infused Gatsby with the requisite charisma and panache, affecting the aristocratic transatlantic accent of the day with perfection. This was one of the best movies of 2013, so far. Grade: A.