May 13, 2013 by Vinnie Leduc
Like many students, I was forced to read The Great Gatsby… over a decade ago. Before checking out the fifth and latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, all I could remember about it were: (1) It’s considered one of the best, if not the best, works of American literary fiction. (2) Some rich guy loves some rich girl in old timey days. (3) Something about a green light, but I’d forgotten the symbolism. I’m not even sure whether I read the Cliffs Notes or the actual book. (Sorry, Mrs. Cheney!) That being said, I didn’t expect writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s incarnation to impact moviegoers as profoundly as the book apparently did for its readers. When it was time to make room for other blockbusters and sequels on our early list of most anticipated movies of the year, it wasn’t hard to drop The Great Gatsby even though the vibrant and pop-hawking trailers looked and sounded intriguing.
Vincent Chase Leonardo DiCaprio plays the titular character, a mysterious and wealthy man whose legendary reputation precedes him. Before we learn more about his water-cooler-fodder background and quixotic obsession, he comes off as a man’s man, short of The Most Interesting Man in the World from those Dos Equis commercials but a charismatic gentleman that any guy would love to have as a friend or ally. Kind of like Leo’s last role in Django Unchained, minus the racism and inhumanity. And with Gatsby’s routine displays of luxury and power, often via extravagant parties at his stunning estate, of course he’s got the ladies swooning over him as well. He’s like the original Chuck Bass for girls suffering from Gossip Girl withdrawal, and he’s the self-made millionaire many men envy or aspire to be.
This is all during the Roaring Twenties, nearly a booming decade of cultural blossoming in which self-indulgent materialism was perhaps the only thing outpacing the economic prosperity and thriving consumerism that preceded the Great Depression. Wait, what is this? A history lesson? Leave it to Baz Luhrmann, an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee for Moulin Rogue!, to bring the time period to life nearly a century later with his dazzling visual style and cinema’s burgeoning 3D trend, normally reserved for animated, action, and horror movies seeking an extra box office boost. The extra dimension is seldom offered in the drama genre, even less frequently for a romance, but it’s implemented perfectly and gorgeously in The Great Gatsby. One of the many highlights of the movie, the engrossing 3D is the best I’ve seen since Life of Pi and among the best ever for a live action movie.
Speaking of perfect, who better to showcase the hedonistic grandeur and ensuing pre-Depression decadence of this golden age than Baz Luhrmann? Maybe Martin Scorsese, but not only has Luhrmann previously infused older classic tales with modern music to great success (Romeo + Juliet, another tragic love story also starring DiCaprio), his flashy showmanship is exactly what Jay Gatsby goes for. In various ways, Gatsby is over the top, and the same can be said about Luhrmann’s stylish presentation. It’s perfect.
Complementing the lavish visuals is a memorable soundtrack, produced by Jay-Z, that often mixes a variety of contemporary music with the Jazz Age of the ’20s. Way to keep the kids interested, Hova! The blatant anachronism is actually quite good, if not just amusing and entertaining. Lurhmann is again directly involved here as well; he co-wrote the Lana Del Rey track that’s used as the stirring theme song of the film’s romance. Together with the visual fireworks, the electrifying score makes the colorful wizardry of Oz look dull.
What’s a feast for the eyes and ears without some great acting to chew on? Golden Globe nominee Tobey Maguire provides the narration and perspective as Nick Carraway, the next-door neighbor of Gatsby. Oscar and Golden Globe nominee Carey Mulligan, last seen in Shame and Drive, plays the ultimate prize that Gatsby pines for, and Joel Edgerton embodies his competition. Leonardo DiCaprio, a Golden Globe winner who’s been Oscar nominated thrice, probably won’t get any awards recognition here even though I didn’t find anything wrong with his performance. But like in Titanic and Inception, he’ll be overshadowed by the attention to visual effects. Better luck next time, old sport.
Beneath the glitz and glam, you’ll find a captivating tale, one of the best of the year so far, that rivals Side Effects and The Place Beyond the Pines. I’d go so far as to say that The Great Gatsby was as much fun as Pain & Gain, another fast and furious film about the American Dream. And as blasphemous as this may be, experiencing Baz Luhrmann’s vision has gotta be more fun than reading the book. For transforming an otherwise Boring Twenties into a cool and accessible time period for the young’uns who might’ve only known proper partying as the insane sh!tshow known as Spring Breakers, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is greater than Great. The Great Gatsby gets 4.5 out of 5 stars.