Director Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby is, above all, great storytelling. Yes, it has moments of sensory overload, but Luhrman and his cast also slow things down to let us get to know the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of life in the early 1920’s, aka the Jazz Age.
With some characters, motivations are obvious. With others, the character’s needs and wants are more gradually revealed. One person leaving a Gatsby screening observed that the casting of the key players was almost perfect.
Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that’s among his best, plays the title role and keeps Gatsby initially mysterious. Tobey Maguire is also a standout as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book and movie, a callow Midwesterner who is awestruck by what he experiences in New York. Cary Mulligan captures Daisy Buchanan’s grace and charm, as well as some of her less savory qualities. Another impressive player is Joel Edgerton as the impetuous Tom Buchanan, who reveals all of his character’s anger and resentments. In a small role, Isla Fisher shines as Myrtle Wilson.
Trailers for Gatsby and Luhrman’s reputation for bombast may have set the bar high for those anticipating a loud and splashy, over-the-top production. Indeed, a couple of the parties at Gatsby’s mansion are mind-blowers. And the fireworks scene, accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is jaw-droppingly spectacular.
Luhrman loves the fast fly-in shots and so do I. (They’re like zoom-ins, but the feeling is of the camera’s moving.) His bookending the film with the black and white vintage look titles is clever, but not quite as clever as the titles sequences seen two months ago for Oz the Great and Powerful.
Those who hold Fitzgerald’s novel in high esteem will appreciate the filmmaker’s respect for Fitzgerald’s text. Those who rolled their eyes upon hearing that the movie would use contemporary music in its soundtrack will find that most of the selections work in harmony with the film’s events. Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful is particularly memorable.
The Great Gatsby is a classic novel, one that’s taught at schools and colleges. Transferring such a tale to film is not easy. Painting a portrait of the characters that’s true to the printed work and including major plot elements requires a variety of skills. Those skills are evident here, particularly in the time management of the story.
My only qualms: I thought Gatsby’s home was substantially grander in the movie than I’d imagined from the book. Also, I pictured Gatsby to have a more weathered, rugged appearance than does DiCaprio, who looks fit and healthy.
It’s notable that The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13. Hats off to Luhrman for making a great movie without a single f-word. (High school English teachers, feel free to send your students to see The Great Gatsby without fear of getting yelled at by the school board.)
The Great Gatsby is solid, with few flaws. Enjoy the story, the characters, the settings, the cars, the wardrobes. Don’t miss it, old sport!