I can say without prevarication that Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is one of the better films you will see all year. A strong statement to make; especially given how controversial a director Baz Luhrmann, he of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge fame, is. But rarely does a film based on a literary work (in this case, F. Scott's Fitzgerald's eponymous novel ) come so close to being almost as artistically rich as the work that inspires it. Yet this film, a collaboration of Luhrman and primary executive producer Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter (yes, that Jay-Z), presents The Great American Novel as music video. Glitz, glamor, bling, bold brassiness, T&A, lots of style, yet lots of substance...heavy with it. The symbolism comes short of being heavy handed, but given the symbolism replete in the source novel, that is not an indictment.
The story follows narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, who proves he can actually deliver narration that doesn't sound like a whiney Peter Parker), a self described observer who feels disassociated with the world around him, as he befriends and tries to unravel the mystery of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy, new money socialite who is in love with Carraway's cousin, Daisy Buchanan (a very ethereal Carey Mulligan) who so happens to be married to old money Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Anyone familiar with the novel (and if you've taken English in 11th grade, who hasn't?) knows the story, which the adaptation follows quite faithfully with perhaps a deviation or two. But with this film, it's not the story, but how it unfolds; which it does with visual aplomb, bombast, delight and pageantry. The film opens in style reminiscent of the studio films of the early 20th century and then segues in to crisp modern clarity. - The Jazz of the era is instead replaced with modern hip hop stylings (with an orchestral assist from Craig Armstrong), which may rankle a few purists, but in the context of the film it beautifully works. The past and present comingle, presenting the thematic message that the years may change, but society has not. There are the haves and have-nots, blue blood snobbery, and gumption. The masses still want their "bread and circuses", whether it be found in a speakeasy or in lurid gossip to be found at either a dinner table or a tabloid, reality TV show. As usual, Luhrmann creates a microcosmic world that exists in fantasy yet can exist anywhere. He uses colors and CGI to good, yet sometimes overbearing, effect yet still manages to get the themes found in the novel visually represented.
And it does not just stem with the visuals. He ekes out performances that completely captures the blasé, banal vapidity that most of these characters embody which is laced with an existential despair that makes itself evident in fleeting moments throughout the film. The first half of the film is one big party, where everything is all smiles and NSA fun. It's when Gatsby achieves his initial objective does the party shut down. Once the party's over, life's harsh realities make themselves unavoidably manifest. Luhrmann then shatters the illusion, bearing the true heart of the novel. Colors are muted into dark greys, save for a flashing green light and the colors of a dilapidated eye doctor's sign (both important pieces of imagery in the novel). New York, so blazingly idealized in the beginning of the film, becomes visually oppressive representation of John Upton's "The Jungle". It's as if he films two different movies, and the transition is jarring as one would expect as though one were coming out from a drinking binge. The pacing and editing is uneven at times; scenes go on a little longer than they should while others more worthy of development get a short shrift, but the film holds your attention even at the slowest of spots.
This film would be nothing without Leonardo Dicaprio in a role that almost seems tailored to him. His still boyish good looks and charisma are used to good effect in the role, and presents the character of Gatzby as an imperfect mask: It occasionally slips only long enough to be caught by anyone paying attention. However, it is only Nick Carraway and the audience that catches on to them. Gatzby is, in a sense, as chameleon-like as the actor who portrays him. Yet Gazby is a cypher in a world that does neither seeks nor desires purity of truth or passion. He is an enigma to the shallow world of which Daisy is a part. Yet for all his bombast and usual clipped, almost punctuated dialogue, Gatzby is painfully real. Whether he is a hopeless romantic, delusional fool, or Machiavellian villain is for the viewer to decide, but Dicaprio's performance is such that the interpretation could be any, all, or none of the above. This is one time that an Oscar nomination would be deserved. The same, however, cannot be said for Maguire. Carraway undergoes his own journey within the novel but the character's arc gets the short shrift here. Nothing is made of his infatuation with Jordan Baker (a very porcelain Elizabeth Debicki), and the changes in the character's demeanor seem quick and forced. Maguire does the best he can, but he is simply not nuanced enough to make the transition smooth or believable. While the character is the observer who feels divorced from what he observes, he also serves as the reader's/viewer's eyes and ears. Perhaps as this is a visual telling the character becomes extraneous. Nevertheless, the character's arc suffers from this.
There is so much going on in this film, both visually and subtextually, that a simple review is inadequate. That being said, The Great Gatsby is a film that should be experienced. It might not get you an "A" in American Lit class, but it will certainly help you get a better understanding of how rich the novel truly is.