F. Scott Fitzgerald's celluloid vision of his "The Great Gatsby" might have looked only slightly different than Baz Luhrmann's ("Moulin Rouge!") over-the-top interpretation of the celebrated novelist's 1925 novel. After all, Fitzgerald's book is full of excesses: booze, broads, and all that jazz; Luhrmann's film is a contemporary commentary on excesses, too, with subtle barbs as to how we haven't evolved that far in 88 years.
For those whose high school literature teachers didn't require "Gatsby" as reading in the eleventh grade, here's the plot. And, by the way, to Luhrmann's credit, he stays faithful to the story, time period and dialogue.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who is working on Wall Street as a bond trader, rents a small house on Long Island nestled between some of its biggest mansions. Carraway, the narrator of the story and wannabe writer, marvels at those with "new" money. His cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), is married to aristocratic sportsman and polo champ Tom (Joel Edgarton), a womanizer who spends his time on the wrong side of the tracks with the local mechanic's wife, Myrtle (Isla Fisher). Turns out that Carraway's neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose weekend indoor pool parties are legendary, knows Daisy all too well. In fact, the two were star-crossed lovers. Now Gatsby wants her back and his new neighbor is going to help him.
Luhrmann's film opens on a snowy scene; Carraway is in a sanitarium and is recounting the story of what happened one self-discovering summer in 1922. In old-school Hollywood style, the star of the show isn't introduced until a half hour or so into the film. And it is quite a buildup. Luhrmann's lens burns straight into DiCaprio, giving him a Hollywood hero's introduction that recalls leading man intros by early 20th century directors reserved for the likes of Clark Gable. And it's just one of many crescendos that the filmmaker builds in to his story with symphonic like finesse.
The soundtrack is a dizzying cacophony itself. Much of it is punctuated with hip hop that finds its beat with Jazz Age influenced melodies; it was executive produced by Jay-Z and includes tracks by will.i.am, Lana Del Ray and Jack White. While purists seem most offended by this assault on the senses, the choice only furthers the movie's maniacal mood swings.
In shooting his film in 3-D, Luhrmann also goes one step further to force his point of view and makes the choice for his audience in how he wants his "Gatsby" interpreted. While 3-D action films immerse the viewer in the goings on, here it has the opposite effect, creating a distance between the moviegoer and the action on screen. The outcome is genius effect -- somewhat like watching a storybook unfold. Luhrmann overtly tells this audience on more than one occasion that this is exactly what he has in mind by displaying key phrases that pass and float across the screen.
Because Luhrmann is really the star of this film, the actors take a back seat to the on-screen spectacle. DiCaprio does a mash-up of a trio of the rich and powerful men he's played before, delivering a hybrid of his Howard Hughes character in "The Aviator," Herbert Hoover in "J. Edgar" and huckster Frank Abagnale in "Catch Me If You Can." His Gatsby never really leaps off the page. Maguire as the wide-eyed Midwesterner from Minnesota grabs leading man status from DiCaprio at every turn.
And while leading lady Mulligan has great chemistry with Maguire and Edgarton, her scenes with DiCaprio are as frigid as the winter waters of Long Island Sound
There's a memorable line that's oft repeated from "The Great Gatsby" -- a quote from Carraway who is describing a woman he's recently met. "I wasn't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity," he says. It's an apt summation of the emotions moviegoers may feel after spending 142 minutes with "The Great Gatsby" as seen through the eyes of one of modern cinema's most adventurous directors.