It's been a bit of a shaky ride for Baz Luhrman's version of "The Great Gatsby." His take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic was originally slated to open during the 2012 holiday season, then was pushed back to July, then moved forward to this month.
There is no doubt Luhrman's projects have tended toward the extravagant, to put it mildly, and the director is known to be a perfectionist. Still, the constant shifting, due supposedly to Luhrman's "tinkering, raised some eyebrows and rumors about a failed project began to swirl. This isn't surprising considering Luhrman's last project, "Australia," performed poorly at the box office and garnered lukewarm reviews. Fears of Luhrman and executive producer Jay-Z losing sight of Fitzgerald's story amidst showers of glitzy visuals, modern music riffs, and almost cartoonishly-bright art direction also were reasons for skepticism.
It turns out all of those fears were not unfounded, but the creative forces at work here do find enough restraint to letFitzgerald's work take center stage in all of the pivotal moments, making this film surprisingly more cohesive than many people may have expected. While it has some edgy qualities to it, it stays grounded in the original materiel.
The story follows a summer in the early roaring ’20s, with recent Yale graduate Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) renting a cottage in West Egg, an affluent part of Long Island. Carraway has jettisoned his dreams of becoming a writer for the riches of Wall Street, and while he is far removed from the wealth and mansions that surround his cottage it doesn't take long for him to be in thick of things. Across the bay resides his exquisite cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is married to his old roommate -- the snobby, racist, philandering Tom, a cad who interrupts dinner parties to speak with his mistress, Myrtle (Isla Fisher), a married woman herself. He also is introduced to socialite and gossiper Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), who helps guide Nick around West Egg, at least with the gossip.
While evenings across the bay at the Buchanan’s are filled with wealthy and cold deceit, Carraway finds a different kind of nightlife of the wealthy on his side when he receives an invitation to a a party thrown by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Carraway's elusive neighbor. The parties at Gatsby’s have become legendary, filled with much mystique and debauchery. New Yorkers from all walks of life just arrive uninvited. Carraway is the lone exception to this rule, being the first to ever receive a formal invite. As for the man himself, he is seemingly never in attendance; and while hundreds come for the circus-like festivities, no one seems to have ever met the man, which of course feeds the rumor mill with wild assertions.
Once again, Nick is an exception as Gatsby is there at this particular party and seeks out Carraway , and quickly takes a liking to him. It isn't long before Gatsby has taken Nick under his wing and the two are racing around in Gatsby's souped up yellow roadster, while the mysterious Gatsby reveals his past, and intoduces Nick to some rather sketchy characters including Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitach Bachnan), a fearsome gangster who allegedly was the mastermind behind the fix of the 1919 World Series.
Gatsby can seemingly have anything – anything, that is, but a tea appointment with Daisy Buchanan. That is where Nick comes in.
Those who have read the novel know where this is all headed, and those who haven't are missing out on what is widely considered one of the greatest American novels ever written. The real surprise is that Luhrman's style not only melds well with Fitzgerald's prose, but in some instances may even enhance it. The prose, in fact, crawls across the screen at intervals throughout the film like a news ticker. Yes, the film employs music from the likes of Jay-Z, will.i.am, Nero and U2, but it actually adds to the dreamlike quality of the film.
The performances, however, are what truly drive the film. Carey Mulligan seems to be immune from picking a bad role or role or delivering a poor performance early in her career, and she cast perfectly as the perfectly beautiful-but-flawed Daisy (there was quite a bit of competition). Maguire seems a fairly obvious choice as the quiet outsider looking into this world he never knew existed and is eventually repulsed by it, and Elizabeth Debicki is quite good at handling the subtleties of Baker's character. Edgerton is a bit over-the top as the slimy Tom, but it appears this exactly what was asked of him. Isla Fisher is is almost unrecognizable and basically wasted in this film, I'm uncertain why she even took it.
But, of course, this is all about Gatsby, hence it's all about DiCaprio, who owns the role role of legendary character from the moment he appears from the background at Carraway's first party. DiCaprio provides one of those rare performances in which after seeing the film you cannot picture another actor playing the confident but layered Gatsby. The part requires a certain precision in slowly and meticulously stripping the character down until we fully understand the man and get the eventual truths. This is not an easy thing for an actor to do with the perfect balance, unless of course, you're Leonardo DiCaprio.