From the movie's opening frames — studio logos framed by an elaborate art-deco graphic design that turns from black and white into gold and polished nickel — “The Great Gatsby” dazzles with self-conscious visual fireworks.
Whatever it makes you feel, and people are bound to be divided on that, it's certainly something to see.
You'd expect no less from Australian director Baz Luhrmann, whose “Moulin “Rouge” and “Strictly Ballroom” also rolled around in eye-popping excess and used music to heighten the romantic melodrama being whipped up on-screen.
“Gatsby” is certainly a story of excess, set at the height of the Jazz Age. Jay Gatsby's Long Island mansion evokes a Disney castle. His parties fairly drown in Champagne, confetti, fireworks and tinsel. And the costumes, designed by Luhrmann's partner Catherine Martin, are a 1922 fashion show in dazzling color.
As for the hip-hop music in the soundtrack you've been hearing so much about, I doubt even literary purists will much mind the brief passages. Yes, it was jarring at first, but I quickly stopped noticing. Much of the music is period-appropriate, and the contemporary tunes at least work with what's happening on-screen.
But what of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story, now viewed as one of the great American novels? Well, it has plenty of resonance in today's cultural divide between the haves and the have-nots. Luhrmann isn't shy in nudging you to see that.
Nor does he hesitate in shedding some light on the enigmatic character of Gatsby. You'll get more detail on his murky past than in any of the previous screen versions — and maybe even more than in the book. People who don't like guesswork or reading between the lines should be pleased.
Leonardo DiCaprio provides much more of a sense of the inner Gatsby and the transformation he's always trying to pull off than Robert Redford's version in the 1974 movie. It's a nuanced performance that at times feels studied, calculated — which is a valid approach to this character.
Carey Mulligan brings to Daisy Buchanan less of the fragility and neuroticism Mia Farrow displayed back in '74. Mulligan gives the movie its heartbeat as you see her torn between the two loves of her life — even though Joel Edgerton's narrow-eyed version of racist, class-snob husband Tom makes his character wholly unsympathetic.
A personal favorite: Tobey Maguire as go-between Nick, the narrator of the film and the keeper of secrets, who loses his wide-eyed innocence in a drunken soiree thrown for Tom's mistress, then sets cousin Daisy up with ex-love Gatsby and lives to regret it.
It's a powerhouse cast, but if you're like me, you'll often sense emotional distance from what's happening on-screen. Some scenes are quite affecting (the hotel showdown in particular), while others don't make you feel much of anything. When it was over, what I felt was exhaustion from all that excess — and admiration for the artistry.
That goes for the story, but in a way also for the movie. Luhrmann's zoom lenses, digital effects (letters floating out of Tom's typewriter, fireworks forming a halo around Gatsby's first entrance as Gershwin booms in the background), the overfeasting on symbolism — at times it was too much.
But he still told the story better than anybody before him.
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