The year's first Oscar contender The Great Gatsby represents a must-see. The question is, will moviegoers take the chance?
Among the worst assumptions of Summer films is that their end results are merely a cacophony of thunderous explosions, Science Fiction slaughter, and Comic Book reboots. But once in awhile, we're jolted back to reality with truly excellent fare. That's where The Great Gatsby finds itself, a film that's top-shelf in its direction, true to the source material, and a wonder on the eyes.
Based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel from 1925, our story follows the parallel paths of the writer (Tobey Maguire, Spiderman series), the blonde beauty Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Drive), and the reclusive mega-millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island, Inception), as 1920's America drinks and spends its way into The Great Depression. When Maguire's Nick Carraway moves into a small home on the nuveau-riche fictional island of West Egg, he instantly realizes that the home next door is host to a recurring weekend activity of drinking and partying, courtesy of the enigmatic Gatsby. The guests fly into wild conversations about his past, elevating him close to godhood, and leaving Carraway shell-shocked to learn that he's been invited to meet Gatsby himself. This meeting isn't accidental: Gatsby wants to re-ignite his romance with Carraway's second cousin Daisy, whom Gatsby left years ago due to his poverty. But Daisy's married to the former athlete Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty), who he himself is engaged in a relationship with another woman. As New York literally grows up around them, our love triangle moves to a deadly third act, in which no one will be left untouched.
Director Baz Luhrmann (Moulon Rouge) spends like 1922 to bring this tale to life; and while the book has been remade nearly a half-dozen times, it's never looked or sounded so good. Luhrmann paints every scene like a da Vinci, filled with eye candy as far as your eye can see, including the terrific roadside image of the optometrist's glasses whose irises rise a mile high, looking over the creation of New York like its protector. Everything visually about this film screams perfection, and Luhrmann basks in it, tranporting the viewer to a time of decandence not seen since. But it's also his choices of actors which drive the plot when the parties are over and romance begins. DiCaprio is hand's down the best thing about Gatsby, because he actually seems to become Gatsby, from his 'old sport' monikers (which he throws down like a stack of Vegas chips) to the nervousness of a school boy upon seeing Daisy after so many years. Among the greatest - and least appreciated - actors of our time, DiCaprio brings a life to Gatsby that's inspiring, imaginative, funny, and gripping in its tragic ending. Mulligan shines as Daisy and Maguire is solid as the naive Nick, forming a triumverate that's simply fun to watch together.
There are some shortcomings to Luhrmann's casting - including Edgerton - who never seems to get comfortable speaking his lines. There's also the underused Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as a lowly working-class couple whose on-again/off-again appearances makes them less effective each time they re-appear to throw a wrench in the story. If this movie's got one issue, it might have been to see these two operate within the story more effectively. But this is a minor issue that one can ignore, because the story is so effectively centered around Gatsby, Daisy, and Carraway. My hope is that an extended edition on Blu-ray might allow this sidestory a chance to breathe. What also stands out about the story is Luhrmann's ballsy choice of music - 1920's ragtime is replaced with Executive Producer Jay-Z's tracks, along with appearances by Beyonce and André 3000. It could have been disastrous, but the music works effortlessly alongside In Time Composer Craig Armstrong's score.
Visually stunning and mostly well-constructed, The Great Gatsby demonstrates what can happen when all the mixtures are (nearly) properly balanced. And while some of its casting mix is suspect, DiCaprio demonstrates (once again) that he's deserving of more than mere Oscar nomination. Mulligan and Maguire establish themselves as quality dramatic leads, and Luhrman's eye basks the viewer in a visual symphony that deserves recognition of some sort. Whether audiences embrace Shakespearean tragedy in the high life of the 1920's is a question that only the numbers can bear out, but with so much of this that works, The Great Gatsby is definitely worth a travel back in time. It's rated PG-13 and has a runtime of 142 minutes.
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