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The Great Gatsby
An energetic, visual delight.
The Great Gatsby Grade: B+
Director: Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge)
Screenplay: Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic), Tobey Maguire (Spiderman)
Rating: PG-13 Runtime: 143 min. by John DeSando
“The most hopeful man I ever knew.” Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire)
I refuse to enter into the fray about the comparison between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and any film adaptation. Both are different ways of telling the story and should be discussed on their own merits. Baz Luhrmann’s film version, The Great Gatsby, is sumptuous, just as you would expect from the visionary director of the eccentric Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet, and it successfully translates the great disparity between hope and despair, the have’s and have not’s, memory and reality, love and longing, and the American Dream.
Luhrmann’s personal evocation of the roaring 1922 twenties is art deco and sin ramped up to full speed. The mise en scene is loaded with careening cameras, wild colors, flappers, jazz performers, and luscious automobiles. Luhrmann wildly imagines that time between the Great War and the Great Depression when no apparent consideration arose about the poor or the danger of Stock Market catastrophe. The shots are beautiful while the people often foolish.
The greatest fool is Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio), newly rich yet old in love, longing for Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), yet her old money will not let him have her, notwithstanding she’s married anyway. DiCaprio plays him like he’s a movie star (come think of it, Leo is Gatsby in a movie star life), distant and dreamy with tons of money and no one to give it to but revelers who give nothing back. DiCaprio seems instinctively to know the seductions of wealth and fame, and the dark pit of loneliness that accompanies the futile grab for the one thing he can’t buy.
Carey Mulligan’s Daisy makes little impression except for her memorable smile, or at least the actress doesn’t show why her character is worth Gatsby’s sacrifice. However, that may have been the purpose with her thin characterization all along: She embodies the carelessness of the rich, barely able to sacrifice for love, unattached to anything but things.
Luhrmann’s choice for Nick’s sanitarium-framing device compromises Nick's credibility for narrating the story. Although Maguire brings the right wide-eyed naiveté to the role, he doesn’t have the weariness of Joseph Cotton’s institutionalized narrator, Jed Leland, in Citizen Kane. By the way, that film has a lost dreamer as its protagonist as well.
Although Nick knows you can’t repeat the past, Gatsby keeps hoping to start it again with Daisy. The film gives that melancholy theme its due, and Fitzgerald can be heard and felt at the end: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick
John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at WCBE.org. He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com