By Roger Moore
Jazzy, fizzy and often quite fun, Baz Luhrmann’s “Pretty Good Gatsby” takes F. Scott Fizgerald’s Great American Novel out for a sometimes dazzling, always irreverent spin.
The gauzy picture-postcard 3-D production design and superb leading players breathe life into the Jazz Age novel. But the “Moulin Rouge!” director’s barely contained determination to Australianize, if not outright bastardize, “The Great Gatsby” is constantly at war with a book and a cast that scream “classic.” And Luhrmann isn’t having that.
Gatsby’s orgiastic parties are set to hip hop music. A clumsy sanitarium-set framing device gives Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a tad too much Fitzgerald autobiography and too little Nick, the shrewd but passive observer.
And some of the supporting player choices take you right out of the movie.
Seriously, what Luhrmann and “colorblind casting” do to the “gambler” and gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is so far removed from Jewish caricature or stereotype as to be laughable.
But Maguire is close to perfect as Nick, the struggling bond salesman, would-be writer and teller of the tale of his neighbor, the mysterious, “richer than God” Jay Gatsby, and of inbred aristocracy that Nick’s cousin, Daisy, was born into and married into. Carey Mulligan makes for a cannier Daisy than the hapless ditz Mia Farrow turned her into back when Robert Redford played Gatsby in 1974. Joel Edgerton makes the brawny, bigoted Tom Buchanan an understandable, if not remotely sympathetic, guardian of his polo-playing “ruling class.”
And Leonardo DiCaprio brings depth, neediness and focus to Jay Gatsby, who has copied the manners, affectations and dress of America’s not-noble nobility, all in pursuit of his feminine ideal — Daisy.
There’s a larger-than-life aura about DiCaprio, and Luhrmann introduces him as the character in a grand moment that includes confetti, fireworks and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Nick rents a rundown bungalow next door to Gatsby’s Disneyland-sized mansion. He finds himself the go-between in the mysterious millionaire’s obsession, a way for Gatsby to see the woman he loved but who lived totally outside of his income years before. All that he’s earned, all that he’s made of himself in Prohibition-era America, he did for her.
Luhrmann stages stunningly choreographed parties. Long shots are painterly fantasy landscapes. Manhattan is a garishly colorized sea of neon and noise.
But this movie hangs utterly on performance, and DiCaprio’s Gatsby is mesmerizing. His studied use of the term “old sport,” awkward attempts at poses and occasional lapses — dropping the Jay Gatsby facade — are exactly right.
The beating heart of the book — coveting wealth to recreate an imagined past and idealized future — shines through in this performance. The emptiness of those pursuits — money, partying, marrying for status — seems more modern than ever.
But it is DiCaprio’s lovelorn, hopeful, grasping and nostalgic Gatsby that stands out, a man who earns Nick’s finest compliment, one of the greatest lines in all of literature:
“They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them put together.”
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