daniel cohen is feeling great …
Plot: 1920’s, New York. A young, idealistic Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to Long Island to make it in the business world, but is swept up in the decadence and alcohol fueled era of the times. He meets Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy but reclusive and mysterious figure. Despite all his wealth, there is still one thing Gatsby yearns for, and enlists Nick to help him achieve this ultimate dream.
There’s a lot to take in when watching The Great Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel of the same name. But out of everything that needs to be said about this movie, one thing is very clear: I need Gatsby’s pink suit for next Halloween. Okay, enough joking around. The Great Gatsby is one of those novels where people are going to be very sensitive about any kind of adaptation, including myself. And after watching Baz Luhrmann’s most recent version of the story, I can emphatically say that this movie absolutely holds the emotional resonance of that book … I love this movie.
Baz Luhrmann has always been style over substance to the point where I feel like he deliberately tries to piss me off. And for the first act of this film, that’s exactly what we get — style, style, style. But I’ll give Luhrmann credit, because it works. The first act really is just wild party after wild party, just an absolute roller coaster with no chance to catch your breath. It’s a bit cartoonish, but Luhrmann never goes completely bonkers. The characters are still there, and are given a chance to speak despite all the hoopla. The visuals and style though are absolutely gorgeous, holy crap. The look of everything is just majestic. Gatsby’s mansion in particular, and the atmosphere of his first party is what I would imagine Chicago would be like if the Cubs won the World Series.
There comes a point though where the parties are over, and it’s just Gatsby and Nick talking in a car. And this is where I started to get nervous as Luhrmann gets dangerously close to entering ‘Baz Luhrmann Land,’ a land I detest so much. The cars are zipping all over the place, and all I want to do is hear these guys have a conversation. It gets distracting. And then something happened … it’s as if someone tapped Baz Luhrmann on the shoulder and said, ‘Stop it. This is The Great Gatsby. Don’t ruin this.’ Because while this movie is fun and entertaining for the first half hour, it eventually reaches a point where it becomes what I always dreamed a Great Gatsby film could be when reading the book. The style is still there, but it’s the characters, and the drama that ensues around them that becomes the focus.
But we have to get to the soul of this movie, which are the actors. Leonardo DiCaprio’s introduction as Jay Gatsby is simply epic. It’s over the top, ridiculous, and even cartoonish, but it works. In watching DiCaprio’s performance, you don’t even think about it. From the first two seconds he’s on screen, he’s Gatsby … the end. It’s as if even F. Scott Fitzgerald had DiCaprio in mind when he wrote the book back in the 1920’s. Would someone just give this guy an Oscar already, for crying out loud!
But it’s not just DiCaprio who steals the show. Most everyone else is on their A-game. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Daisy Buchanan. She’s emulates the character perfectly – charming, beautiful, shallow, weak, foolish, all rolled into one. Joel Edgerton as her husband Tom is also ripped right from the pages. He’s a scumbag, but there’s still a quality to him that’s likable as he hides his evil well. Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, was also a nice little role. She’s really only in two scenes, but for how crucial her part is at the end, you get a perfect sense of the character in the one scene she’s in from the beginning.
Now even with all the praise I’m heaping on this film, there’s one element that will probably keep this from being a top three movie of the year for me: Tobey Maguire. Aside from Brothers, Tobey and I have never gotten along. He sucks as Spider-Man, can we please all just come to terms with this already! And as big a role as he plays here, he’s just outshined by every single actor in this movie. I get that’s sort of the point with Nick Carraway, but I feel like another actor could have done something much better with the role. This is especially a problem in the beginning, because before Gatsby gets into the picture, he is the focus of the movie, and he’s just not capable of carrying a scene. Maguire was a huge problem for me, but to Luhrmann’s credit, once Gatsby arrives, the movie wisely pushes Nick to the side and focuses solely on Gatsby and Daisy. In fact, the movie barely gets into Nick’s romantic relationship with Jordan Baker, a famous golfer, and played wonderfully by Elizabeth Debicki. I like this relationship in the book, but I was glad for any reason to shift away from Nick’s storyline.
The relationship between Gatsby and Daisy really is the heart of the film, and where the focus on character takes center stage. It’s funny when it needs to be, passionate when it needs to be, and heartbreaking when it needs to be. There’s a fantastic scene in Gatsby’s house where he and Daisy dance in the middle of the room. It’s a quiet moment, and a wonderful juxtaposition from the craziness we see earlier at Gatsby’s house. It captures the passion that makes this story so riveting.
The other thing I was nervous about was the music, and that the spirit of the ‘roaring twenties’ would not be accurately depicted. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, Luhrmann gets his contemporary pop music in there, but it’s never distracting, and even blends well with the 1920’s environment. And aside from the songs, the actual score performed way above my expectations. It was surprisingly subtle. But this movie captures the 1920’s period in spades. Everything from the music, the settings, and especially the costumes and make-up was just glorious.
While I wish a couple of the dramatic scenes in the third act were better, it’s the last 10-15 minutes that pushes this movie into greatness. It seamlessly captures the power that is contained within this novel. Even though Maguire is the weak link, he at least delivers his final lines eloquently. And if you were afraid the symbolism wasn’t going to be properly represented here, don’t you worry — The Green Light gets it’s due, dammit! I have to give Baz Luhrmann credit. This is like a .200 hitter getting a game winning hit in the playoffs. When the final two images of this film burn on screen, I simply said to myself …’They got it.’
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Really Great)