“The Great Gatsby” is a guilty pleasure, a swirling, audacious piece of cinema –in 3-D!–that could prove a crowdpleaser for young audiences. Set during the Roaring Twenties, the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel has been a fave of high school and college kids for decades. It plays young, partly because it’s about young people in love–or their idea of love, which judging from this latest take on the story, makes people incredibly stupid.
The movie opens May 10 before its May 15 international premiere as the opener at the Cannes Film Festival, 15 miles from where Fitzgerald finished the novel.
It’s easy to discern the attraction for Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann: “The Great Gatsby” offers plenty of room for visual spectacle and deep-focus 3-D, as well as cinematic mythmaking. The movie opens up, much like “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” with an old black and white flat Warner Bros. logo accompanied by a scratchy jazz track, which gives way to gaudy colors, 3-D and a contemporary soundtrack by the likes of Eminem and Jay Z. The music captures the rule-breaking giddiness of the Jazz Age.
If Luhrmann’s cameras swooped and whirled in “Moulin Rouge,” their digital counterparts fly in “Gatsby,” skimming along the shimmering waters of Long Island Sound, above the skyscrapers of Manhattan and over Jay Gatsby’s gleaming yellow roadster speeding down the roadways between the city and his gold turreted West Egg mansion.
“Back then all of us drank too much,” intones narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who in the script’s biggest departure from the original, recounts his relationship with his neighbor Gatsby, “the single most hopeful person I ever met,” to a sanitarium shrink, where he is confined for being morbidly alcoholic. Luhrmann has fun playing with his digital toolkit, bouncing images off various reflective surfaces, and throwing pieces of type and words at the audience across the screen.
Never more tan, lithe and handsome, slicked-back blond Leonardo DiCaprio, who worked with Luhrmann on “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” looks the part of Gatsby, the mysterious pinky-ringed millionaire host of lavish parties by the shore in West Egg, Long Island (read Great Neck). But it’s always a thankless cipher role, as Gatsby keeps repeating “old sport” to narrator Carraway, well-played by Maguire, who gets to make something of a comeback here, while DiCaprio could earn some of the critical scorn that was heaped on Robert Redford for his performance in the excoriated 1974 Jack Clayton version (which nonetheless made money for Robert Evans’ Paramount Pictures). (Maureen Dowd’s column on Gatsby’s enduring appeal here, TOH’s “Gatz” review here.)
DiCaprio tries to express Gatsby’s obsessive love for Carraway’s callow cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, beating out a bevy of competitors), who emerges out of billowing white curtains to give her best line: “I hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”But these characters carry no fine romance, kissing in 3-D; the one who seems truly in
love is Carraway–with Gatsby. Australian Joel Edgerton doesn’t read blue-blood Yale Brahmin Tom
Buchanan at first, but he’s a strong enough actor to carry off the
role–you believe that’s he feels entitled to his polo-playing racist
womanizing ways. And when push comes to shove, Buchanan is strong and rooted in a
way that fantasizing, self-made, insecure Gatsby is not.
Edgerton’s fellow Aussie
Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”) is thrown away in a thankless supporting part as the cuckolded auto
mechanic husband of Buchanan’s ditzy mistress (Isla Fisher). And Bollywood great Amitabh Bachchan memorably cameos as Meyer Wolfsheim.
Finally, this is the kind of film where you hum the sets,
as they say in Hollywood. It’s outrageously designed by Luhrmann’s wife, brilliant production designer Catherine
Martin, who delivers the Gatsby manse’s shining turrets, gleaming parquet floors, elaborate chandeliers and a mighty gold Wurlitzer organ, but should also earn an Oscar nomination for her gorgeous over-the-top costumes, including the Daisy Buchanan show-topper, a chandelier party dress designed by Miuccia Prada.
The film builds from an early small-scale Bacchanalia in a gaudy pink New York pied-a-terre to the giant-scale choreographed chaos of the Gatsby party centerpiece, the tour-de-force that makes the movie a must-see. “Large parties are so intimate,” croons Carraway’s lovely golfer pal Jordan Baker (newcomer Elizabeth Debicki).
At the party they join scads of dazzling fashionistas in intricate hats, indulge in flowing champagne and martinis, watch dancers high-kicking with giant feather fans, zebra floats in the pool, orchestra musicians in red fezes, floating giant butterflies, streaming confetti, and exploding fireworks– all synced to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
But when Luhrmann returns for another round of parties, it’s a letdown. Finally this overproduced slimmest of narratives becomes repetitive, at two hours and 23 minutes, as we revisit the sumptuous set pieces, Gatsby looking longingly across the water toward Daisy’s glowing green dock, and hear yet another iteration of the morphing Gatsby backstory until, finally, we reach Fitzgerald’s last words, from the novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”