(by Dustin Putman
Hopeful idealism is crushed beyond recognition by the superficiality of wealth and the people both drawn to and corrupted by it in "The Great Gatsby," writer-director Baz Luhrmann's (2008's "Australia") opulent, tragically beautiful rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel. Capturing the spirit and thematic density of its staggeringly great source material far more successfully than the handsome but dramatically antiseptic 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, this lavish, intentionally gaudy envisioning is full of life until it devastatingly isn't, the past staying very much in the past as its characters swirl inevitably toward sad fates they either make for themselves or cannot avoid. As is Luhrmann's style, every frame is an explosion of CGI-assisted eye candy and every other shot sends the camera zooming across waterways and cityscapes, up and down buildings, and all around the majestic, excess-laden milieu of 1920s New York. The music, marrying jazz and classical with modern rap, R&B and pop, is at once boldly anachronistic while never once sounding out of place. It's a lot to drink in all at once and a sight to behold, yes, but one that never loses sight of the heartstrings it keeps plucking. Article continues below
Co-penned by Craig Pearce, who previously collaborated with Luhrmann on 2001's "Moulin Rouge," the film is faithful to the spirit of Fitzgerald and sometimes more than that—snippets of prose and dialogue exchanges are taken wholesale from the book—but they are not beholden to it. One rather smart addition is the structure, the central story proper being told after the fact as Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is being treated at a sanitarium for morbid alcoholism. With the party long since over, Nick works out his feelings, at first to a doctor (Jack Thompson) and then in a notebook, sending him hurling back to the summer of 1922. A war-vet-turned-bond-salesman on the verge of turning thirty, Nick moves into a small cottage on the shores of Long Island's West Egg, twenty miles north of Manhattan. Every night, people come from miles around to attend the over-the-top soirées thrown next door at the mansion of rich mystery man Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). With few people actually bothering to get to know him, the rumors about his past—he's a German spy! He once killed a man! He's a war hero!—run rampant.
When Nick receives an invitation to one such party, he finds himself befriending the misunderstood Gatsby, a man who has built an empire not for himself, but for his one true love who got away, the now-married Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). She lives directly across the bay in the land of Old Money, East Egg, the blinking green light at the end of her dock forever seeming to signal to Gatsby that she's still waiting to be saved. Nick knows Daisy well—they're cousins, after all—and sets up a tea date with the ulterior motive of reuniting her with Gatsby. With a husband at home, Tom (Joel Edgerton), who barely hides his affair with the flighty Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), Daisy feels no guilt in restarting her relationship with the man she first fell in love with five years earlier. Gatsby naturally expects a happily-ever-after for them just as soon as Daisy works up the courage to leave Tom, but things prove not so simple once bitter reality gets in the way of their dreams.
"The Great Gatsby" is a sensory wonderland both intimate and vast as director Baz Luhrmann creates an immersive onscreen world that, for all of its bold and fancy reimaginings, remains accurate to F. Scott Fitzgerald's sumptuous literary descriptions. To sit and watch the picture is to get lost in a time and place gone by, one which may present an exaggerated vision of what it was like ninety years ago (it's safe to say Jay Z's "$100 Bill" and a ragtime-infused version of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" weren't on anyone's phonograph in 1922), but keeps resolute to the emotions of its characters and the harsh truths of life itself. Nick Carraway is our guide, our narrator, our point of reference, and in him is a young man just as quickly harmed as he is revitalized by his friendship with Jay Gatsby, "the single most hopeful person I ever met." In the part, Tobey Maguire (2009's "Brothers") is exquisite, all wide eyes gradually dimming as he stands back as spectator and comes to discover how easy it is for people to use others and then turn their backs on them.
Entering into the movie at around the 30-minute mark with a masterfully clever reveal scored to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Leonardo DiCaprio (2012's "Django Unchained") so magnificently finds the vitality and soul of Jay Gatsby that all previous cinematic incarnations of the character evaporate in his shadow. A question mark at the onset who could be any number of things until he comes clean to Nick about his lowly upbringing and the path that led him to his current fortune, Gatsby is a tortured individual, as outwardly driven and assured as he is riddled with insecurities his money has done nothing to alleviate. Without Daisy, he feels as if his achievements mean nothing. It's all been for her. It has long been determined that DiCaprio is one of the best actors of his or any generation, and this sterling turn, filled with all the movie-star charisma and allure and longing the role demands, won't soon be forgotten.
Furthermore, his chemistry with Carey Mulligan (2011's "Drive") is white-hot, each collective scene they share building upon how right they are for one another as the stakes perilously raise. The question, however, is whether or not the two of them can ever go back to the way things were when they used to be together. In the interim, so much has happened that to recapture the past may be an impossibility. As Daisy, Mulligan so expertly embodies every facet of the character that she must have been exactly what Fitzgerald had in mind when he wrote her. Gloriously attractive and able to make a person feel like they're the only one in existence, Daisy has a way about her that is one-of-a-kind and hard to resist. It is this trait that also makes her actions such a betrayal; she genuinely loves Gatsby, that's no lie, but she's also, as she herself says early on, "a beautiful little fool," unwilling to take a stand or risk her comfy lifestyle. Complex and shallow in equal measure, Daisy is a three-dimensional enigma—fascinating, aloof, often irresistible, and all the more maddening because of these things. In an ensemble where there is but a single weak link—famous Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan is miscast as Gatsby's associate, Jewish gambler Meyer Wolfsheim, slowing the pacing down to a rare crawl in his thankfully one-and-done scene—the standout award goes to eye-catching newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy's and Nick's golf pro friend, the gossip-hungry Jordan Baker. Radiating the spirit of Zooey Deschanel crossed with Cate Blanchett while coming off all the same as a true original, Debicki steals her limited screen time and, like Maguire, DiCaprio and Mulligan, brilliantly captures the essence of Fitzgerald's writing.
An aesthetic marvel—Simon Duggan's (2009's "Knowing") cinematography is like a moody, color-strewn gift from the heavens, while costumes, art direction, and effects work is nothing less than ravishing—"The Great Gatsby" wallows in its frills for a specific purpose that will gradually, profoundly reveal itself. "Will you still love me when I'm no longer young and beautiful?" croons singer Lana Del Ray, her aching, resplendent song acting as a lingering theme of sonic and textural power throughout. Indeed, as Nick poignantly opines to his doctor, "things fade so fast and they don't come back." It's a mournful thought, but also an honest fact of life, one that he learns better than anyone over that sweltering summer of 1922. Laying witness to the coldness of human nature, left "haunted" by the city after everything before him has fallen apart, Nick's belief that one cannot repeat the past is affirmed by the film's quietly forlorn conclusion. With the dancing and the drinking and the care-free frivolity of youth that emanated from Gatsby's thankless parties now long gone, Nick has no choice but to look forward. The rest, as they say, is but a distant memory.