In its second week of release, ‘The Great Gatsby’ has already split critics, with just as many upward thumbs as downward thumbs. For the record, mine is up. The best way to enjoy ‘The Great Gatsby’ is to forget about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel which you were forced to read in high school (or in college/university if you were a slacker). Gatsby, like any literary work, isn’t scripture – filmmakers have to right to take artistic liberties with the source material. For those who can’t bare the sight of the slightest deviation – and, mind you, this is directed by Baz Luhrmann (‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’), well, there’s no convincing you.
For those who didn’t submit their end of term paper but somehow managed to eek a passing grade, this is the story of an unassuming young man (Tobey Maguire) who gets pulled into the roaring twenties world of the wealthy when a mysterious millionaire (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to rekindle his romance with the man’s married but equally wealthy cousin (Carey Mulligan).
The Great Gatsby’ is splashy with lots of glitter and the picture seamlessly combines old-fashioned production values with new-age digital filmmaking – it is even released in 3-D (which I can’t really comment on, because I attended a 2-D screening). Those two dimensions were enough to take in all the artifice, which is suitable for the illusionary world it creates. If you didn’t think the book worked as a commentary on American consumerism, wait til you see what Luhrmann’s created.
Luhrmann does respect the source material – some lines are taken straight out of the page, while others are improvised by the performers. But, his craftsmanship as a filmmaker is evident –juxtaposing present-day hip hop imagery on its 1920 jazz-era setting (unless of course I’m mistaken and Jay-Z’s ‘No Church in the Wild’ was released nearly a hundred years ago). And in doing so, he’s created a mood for the times that unfortunately no living person can accurately verify, but we can accept it as presented.
Gatsby is first seen through the window of his mansion – and to both the Tobey Maguire character, and to the viewer, he is an enigma. He has got money, flashy cars, and the liquor bill for his parties must be in the six-figure category. Yes, he is a rich man and his wealth makes a striking contrast against the poverty of two other supporting characters in the picture – George and Myrtle Wilson. But, his past remains something of a mystery. Leonardo DiCaprio is a charismatic screen presence but this role requires more of him – it is tricky to walk the line between confidence and desperation.
The film’s climactic moment, a scene set in the Plaza Hotel, shows how great Luhrmann and these performers really are. Everyone takes full advantage of the moment. And while the performances do get showy here, take quiet notice of the fact that there isn’t any music, and watch camera cuts across these individual’s faces after their truths have been revealed.
‘The Great Gatsby’ is lavishly presented, with perhaps the most costly production design cinema has ever known. This is an entertaining, big budget soap opera with fine acting and amazing visuals. Good Gatsby, not great. QED.