It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence when a movie adaptation of a classic novel botches the first — and perhaps most well-known — quote of the whole book.
Luckily, “The Great Gatsby” pulls up from its so-so start and soars on the wings of gold, glitz and lots and lots of glitter with mind-blowing results.
That opening line is said by a clearly disturbed Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire), who is now in a sanitarium for depression, anxiety, insomnia and a host of other ills after the fallout of his summer in New York.
In that summer, of 1922, he arrived as a young bondsman, eager to make his mark in the bustling city of endless possibilities. Although spending time with his cousin Daisy (Carrie Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgarton), and their beautiful friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) was nice and all, it was his mysterious neighbor, billionaire Jay Gatsby, who became the focal point of those hot months.
The enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), throws massive parties at his magnificent estate, to which no one is invited but that are attended by what seems like half the city.
Rumors abound about Gatsby’s past and the source of his fortune, but little is known, until Gatsby begins to take Nick into his confidence. Long ago, Nick learns, Gatsby and Daisy were in love, and Gatsby is determined to get her back. But there are complications, of course, not least of which is Tom, though he’s a bit distracted at the moment by his affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of his mechanic. Inevitably, the tapestry woven from various indiscretions quickly begins to unravel, and not all the money in the world can stop it.
The soul of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book is intact, but this is every ounce a Baz Luhrmann baby. The excess of the Roaring Twenties is a perfect foil for Luhrmann’s penchant for visual saturation, especially here, in the world of the super rich. Gatsby’s parties are the most concentrated examples of this — if your imagination couldn’t supply images of massive glasses of champagne being downed by New York’s glittering elite, Luhrmann’s done it for you, and then some.
Towering pyramids of booze reach up to the crystal chandeliers while buckets of confetti rain down on the fire-hazard-packed hoards below. Even outside of Gatsby’s enchanted bubble, the style and magic persist, even drenching the soot-covered slums.
The visuals are arrestingly beautiful, but the performances are strong enough to add a little depth to the overwhelming spectacle. DiCaprio brings subtle humanity and poignancy to Gatsby with a clear understanding of the character that could only come with repeatedly reading between the lines.
Mulligan looks and acts every bit like a Daisy ought to, and deserves special credit for not making Daisy look like a basketcase when she starts crying about shirts. Although when reading the book, I’ve always imagined more of a Tom Hardy as Daisy’s “hulking,” philandering husband. Edgarton is convincingly brutish and easily dislikable. Maguire, for his part, did a credible job, although I felt we saw far too much of him in the distracting sanitarium scenes, which I thought were unnecessary and changed his character.
The soundtrack contains little jazz, and instead floats the bootleggers and speakeasies on hard-driven notes of hip-hop and electronic pop, interspersed with haunting orchestral harmonies by Craig Armstrong, who also scored “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!” It seems incongruent, but the modern songs drive and excite (or repel) much like the new, brashly syncopated jazz might have done to listeners at the time.
At two hours and 20 minutes, it’s a long movie, and it’s clearly overstuffed — but still, somehow, you want more. This is the kind of addictively sweeping movie that sucks in both die-hard fans of the book and those who barely got through that portion of English class with Cliff’s Notes and have only come for the eye candy. Likewise, it has the glitz and the glamor, but underneath it preserves the heart of the cautionary tale of doomed love and misplaced worth. In short, it truly is great.