The Great Gatsby, as lavish and over the top as the story condemns.
It's 1922 and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved east to pursue a job in business on the stock market, leaving his Midwestern roots and his dream of being a writer behind him. He rents a small cottage on Long Island and can't help but notice the lavish, ridiculously over the top parties on almost a nightly basis at his next door neighbor's mansion. His neighbor? The mysteriously rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man in his early 30s who no one knows much about. Specifically invited to one of Gatsby's parties, Nick shows up and is amazed at what he finds and sees, a party unlike any he's ever seen. He meets Gatsby, taking an instant like to this amiable, quirky man with all sorts of unanswered questions hanging over his head. Who is he really? How did he come to this spot? Nick will most certainly be surprised when he finds out, but will he care or will he just be worried about his new friend?
When I hear the name Baz Luhrmann, I think of one thing; one, big old extravagant director. With movies like Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Australia to his name, Luhrmann has a track record for hugely visual, highly stylized films that reek (in a good way) of extravagant sets, goofy style, color, movement and more color. He continues the tradition/trend here with one crazy visual movie. It's style, style and style. We're transported to 1920s NYC courtesy of some pretty obvious but pretty cool CGI. The modern soundtrack is a little much -- songs from Jay Z, Beyonce, Andre 3000, Jack White among others -- and calls too much attention to itself at times. It's not just that the movie is stylish. Luhrmann and his crew commit to bringing it to life. Even if the story sucked or wasn't interesting, you could just sit back and revel in the visual. Thankfully, it's not just style and no substance.
Early on though, I'll admit to being rather worried about what I'd gotten into. As the movie finds its tone and pace, the first 20-25 minutes were rough for me. Things are righted the minute DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby appears on-screen for the first time. Talk about ideal casting, DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the mysterious, charismatic, engaging Gatsby. Let's face it. DiCaprio is a good-looking guy and that certainly helps here. He brings a certain charming energy to the part. Reading the book in high school, I really liked the Gatsby character. He's rich beyond anyone's dreams, but he isn't some smarmy, condescending millionaire. His past is slowly filtered out as we learn about his love for Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Nick's cousin who also happens to be married to an equally rich man, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). We learn that Gatsby is like most people. He looks for happiness, for love, for someone to share his riches with. It's an excellent part for DiCaprio, again showing what a good actor he is.
The rest of the cast is uniformly solid behind him. I'm not a fan of Maguire going back to his Spiderman days, but he's pretty decent here. His Nick is our window into the story, Nick seeing and exploring as we do into this very rich world. His narration gets to be too much at times -- simply trying too hard -- but it's cool to see his friendship develop with Gatsby. Mulligan and Edgerton provide some interesting characters as Daisy and her husband, Tom, Daisy and Gatsby's love providing the spark for the second half of the story. We also get to meet Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a young, up and coming golfer who Nick meets soon after moving to NYC. Isla Fisher plays Myrtle, Tom's mistress, with Jason Clarke playing her husband, the owner of a gas station.
Having read the book (even if it was years ago), I had a certain worry heading into this flick. How close would the script stay to the novel? I worry about it with most books I've read that are turned into films. Thankfully, this adaptation sticks pretty close. While I liked the style and the visual appeal is obvious, I got more enjoyment out of the second half when Jay and Daisy's love steps to the forefront. The style is still there, but it's here we see more substance and get to know the characters far better. The sense of doom arises because we know everything can't end well for all those involved. Where will it head? Will it keep driving toward Fitzgerald's inevitable end? It's in the second half of the movie where 'Gatsby' finds that groove, that right mix of style, story, substance and characters. A pleasant surprise for sure.
The Great Gatsby (2013): ***/****