George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ swells. Fireworks explode. A man with his back to the camera slowly turns, revealing himself to be Leonardo DiCaprio – aka Jay Gatsby. From this point onward, Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby soars to unthinkable heights, chronicling the rise and fall of a didactic millionaire.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the American classic Gatsby probably never heard the faintest whisperings of hip-hop and R&B music in the jazz and swing tunes of his day. He passed on in 1940, with his best-known novel having only sold 20,000 copies in its first year of publication. 73 years later, not only is Gatsby ranked among the best novels of all time, but it has also inspired numerous film and television adaptations, theatrical works, an opera, and even video games. Luhrmann’s version is unquestionably the most colorful, incorporating the director’s ultra-kinetic visuals and the aforementioned modern music. Many critics have sharply hounded Luhrmann for these striking stylistic choices, but I would be lying if I said these choices bothered me. The hyper-realism we have come to associate with his work is only present in the film’s first half, where it’s warranted. Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire’s) narration would have seemed out of place had Gatsby’s parties not been as stylized or ostentatious as they are. Nick meets others besides his next-door neighbor Gatsby in his first months as a resident of West Egg, a fictional area of Long Island, NY that his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) classify as ‘new money.’ Tom and Daisy enjoy their extravagant lives in East Egg, having come from ‘old money,’ and this is a part of why Tom takes a disliking to Gatsby, the man whose frequent and unbelievably lavish parties have all of New York City abuzz. The other part of Tom’s disliking comes when he realizes that Gatsby is planning to whisk his wife away right under his nose.
These themes of rivalry and reliving the past are focused on admirably for a director so often maligned for his tendency to put style over substance. And it’s surprising to me that these criticisms have bled over into the response to this film, as its second half is as tense and dramatically suspenseful as any other great recent drama I’ve seen. Luhrmann has succeeded in updating a classic for a new era. He did not ignore the things everyone wants to see in a Great Gatsby adaptation, but at the same time, he has not abandoned his personal flare and style that has served him well visually in the past. In many ways, this project was the right one at the right time for him, and in my view, he knocked it out of the park, thanks in no small part to his style and his cast. DiCaprio is Gatsby, and it would be a shame for the Academy to forget him at awards season. Mulligan, Edgerton and Maguire are all perfectly cast and play their parts extremely well, but the newfound star in all this is Elizabeth Debicki in the role of Jordan Baker. I don’t have much else to say, except that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a great ride that thankfully doesn’t end with a thud. The spirit of Fitzgerald’s book is there, and so is the style that was necessary to get people excited about Mr. ‘Valor Extraordinary’ again.
(The Great Gatsby is now in wide release)
– George Napper