The Great Gatsby
by Michael Walters
The Cantankerous Critic
This latest version of “The Great Gatsby” isn’t weighted down by its status as “The Great American Novel.” Instead, director Baz Luhrmann seems inspired by it. However, in his hands the book becomes a grand spectacle that celebrates style over substance and somewhat overshadows the characters within it.
As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay Gatsby uses grand gestures and spectacular parties to project a precise image of himself. He’s new money acting like a mysterious old money tycoon in the 1920′s. He lets his lavish parties do the talking, while revealing little more than a glance or a charming smile to the assembled crowds eager to swill his liquor.
He takes a liking to his new neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an up and coming Yale graduate trying to make a buck in bonds during the stock market boom. Maguire serves as the story’s narrator as he recounts his experiences with Gatsby to a doctor in an isolated lonely sanitarium at the end of the Jazz age.
Carraway’s family connection is what interests Gatsby the most. Gatsby has been keeping the torch for an old flame, Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). They were lovers before the war, but he lost her to an old money brute named Tom Buchanan. He’s never forgotten the bond they shared, and neither has she. Now he’s turned himself into a mysterious new money millionaire in hopes of winning her back.
Luhrmann’s production looks lush and magnificent, and he stages the party sequences with an infectious enthusiasm that makes you want to jump out of your seat and join in the fun. Luhrman recreated an idealistic vision of 1920′s New York entirely in Australia. His use of 3-D is far more subtle than most, and he uses every trick in his arsenal to bring every scene to life, sometimes even literally lifting the words off the page. But it also frequently looks more like a digital dreamland filled with CGI crane shots than any real time or place.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine choice to play Gatsby, and Luhrman’s attention to detail is magnificent. I also rather enjoyed the use of Jay-Z, which gives a new kind of energy to the production.
But I can’t really say we find out much about Gatsby the man beyond a few cliches. After watching this version, I wondered if Gatsby was intended to be a real person at all and not just the fever dream of a man in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
In the end, Luhrmann’s infectious eye for spectacle carries the day giving an old book new life. And anything that makes a great American classic appealing to a new generation is okay in my book.