Gatsby, you say? Yes, the literary classic is back on the screen under the schizophrenic hand of Baz Luhrmann. The Moulin Rouge director brings the same chaotic energy he brought to the 2001 musical and it works. Often, these literally classics are adapted to the screen in a very solemn, prestigious tone that are more focused on gorgeous sets and clothing that win Best Costume Design at the Oscars (Anna Karenina won this year). Masterpiece Theatre, this is not. Luhrmann assaults with visuals for the first act of his adaptation. The cuts are fast, the music is loud and layered, and the 3D is exaggerated. It’s great eye candy especially in 3D, but it feels as though Luhrmann is trying to distract you from the lack of story with throwing as many clever visuals at you as he can.
We are introduced to Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who much like Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, is now bearded, bitter, and wants to tell you a story on his typewriter. No, he’s not telling the story of prostitute Satin, but when he met Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, looking like a million bucks in every frame). Reuniting with Leo 17 years after Romeo & Juliet, Luhrmann holds off on the appearance of his leading man for as long as possible, but when he does, it’s an over-the-top, bombastic introduction that’ll get you giggling. Fireworks literally ignite the screen when DiCaprio first flashes his pearly whites.
It’s great seeing DiCaprio in a role like this, because it allows DiCaprio to have some fun. One of the best scenes is watching the suave Gatsby become a bumbling, insecure fool when he’s about to be reunited with his lost love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan). As soon as the two lovers reunite, Luhrmann slows the film down (once again, in a similar vein toMoulin Rouge). The film becomes less flashy and more about the characters, and therefore, much more interesting.
Joel Edgarton plays Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, who quietly observes the destruction of his marriage. It leads to a standout scene between DiCaprio and Edgarton that should get Oscar talking. On the other end of things, Tobey Maguire barely registers as Nick Carraway, even though he has the most screentime. Maguire lacks the gravitas to pull off this type of role.
What’s lacking on the screen is made up for with the brilliant soundtrack that uses modern music, taking another page from Moulin Rouge’s book. Jay-Z, Florence and The Machine, Gotye, Beyonce, Fergie, Andre 3000, will.i.am, Emeli Sande, The xx, and Bryan Ferry all pop up on the soundtrack throughout the film balancing both a current sound with a 1920s swing. Lana Del Rey‘s lovely “Young And Beautiful” is used as an anthem throughout the film from an instrumental version to a big band version. Luhrmann continues to use music in surprising and exciting ways (love the muted use of Alicia Keys‘ “New York!” over a shot of the Manhattan skyline).
The Great Gatsby isn’t a perfect film. Luhrmann’s bell and whistles become excessive at points, but this is an unique spin on a stuffy literary classic with a great performance from Leonardo DiCaprio.