Roadsters roar, flappers flap and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words often leap literally from the page — in 3D no less — in Baz Luhrmann’s flashy new take on the classic novel TheGreat Gatsby. Livelier than any previous screen version (notably the sleep-inducing 1974 iteration that starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow), it is now playing nationwide and will open the Cannes Film Festival next week.
If, like me, your primary exposure to Fitzgerald’s work was back in high school, there may be an initial, understandable hesitance to revisit it now. I didn’t remember much of the writer’s lauded prose nor the plot’s details, and other pieces of required reading (notably Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Orwell’s 1984) made more of an impression on me at the time than The Great Gatsby.
The stylish-to-a-fault Luhrmann has had some great successes (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) but his last epic, Australia, was a big flop everywhere but Down Under. He definitely redeems himself artistically with his immersive, visually spectacular approach to the achingly romantic saga of Jazz-age gazillionaire Jay Gatsby’s love for married debutante Daisy Buchanan. Luhrmann doesn’t direct the film so much as he meticulously choreographs it, from every large-scale dance sequence down to the opening and closing of dining hall doors, and even seemingly the individual steps Gatsby takes during walks out onto his pier. The director receives superb support in this regard from choreographer John O’Connell and director of photography Simon Duggan.
As he did in Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann employs a soundtrack of modern-day dance and hip-hop tunes plus a few period songs all supervised by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter (aka Mr. Beyonce Knowles, whose hit “Crazy in Love” makes an appearance here). Most of them are used effectively to accentuate the racial and class distinctions of the 1920’s. They aren’t as pervasive nor are they arranged as frenetically as songs by Madonna, Fat Boy Slim and other contemporary artists were in Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann also wisely discards the winking, camp spirit that infused much of his earlier, Oscar-winning hit.
While the adapted screenplay by Luhrmann and regular collaborator Craig Pearce takes some liberties with Fitzgerald’s text (I don’t recall so many automobile races in the source material), it remains absolutely faithful to the ultimately tragic main storyline. Gatsby’s readiness to spare no expense in his obsessive effort to reclaim Daisy’s affections and, subsequently, the past is heightened by CGI elements added to Catherine Martin’s already-lavish sets and costumes. Of note, the screenplay and lead performances underscore a long-debated homoerotic dimension to the relationship between Gatsby and his neighbor, writer/narrator Nick Carraway. This is fairly subtle in the new movie, even if Gatsby seems unusually intent on getting Carraway into his under-used swimming pool.
Speaking of the performances, Luhrmann has cast his Great Gatsby splendidly. Leonardo DiCaprio, who looks better and better with age, has never been better as an actor than he is here. As Gatsby, he runs the full gamut of personas and emotions. He is by turns suave, insecure, aloof, desperate, omnipotent, vulnerable, childish, triumphant and broken. It is hard to decide whether his best scene in the film is when he rages at Tom Buchanan in their over-heated room at the Plaza Hotel or when he nervously waits for Daisy’s tea-time arrival at Nick’s cottage.
Former Spider-Man Tobey Maguire, still charmingly boyish at the age of 37, is an excellent foil as Nick, while Carey Mulligan conveys suitable innocence but is morally devastating in the end as the conflicted Daisy. Relative big-screen newcomer Joel Edgerton (Warrior) may make the biggest impression as brutish, unfaithful Tom Buchanan. Terrific supporting performances are given by Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, Isla Fisher as the doomed Myrtle Wilson, Jason Clarke (recently seen in Zero Dark Thirty) as George Wilson and Aussie vet Jack Thompson who, in perhaps this version’s biggest departure from the novel, plays a kindly psychiatrist tending to a post-traumatic and “morbidly alcoholic” Nick.
Whether The Great Gatsby will redeem Luhrmann commercially will be known within a few weeks. If nothing else, his invigorating vision of the literary classic should go over great in high school classrooms after it is released on DVD, maybe even better than the book itself.
Reverend’s Rating: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.