“Once again I was within and without”
Visionary filmmaker Baz Luhrmann returns with a big screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby, filmed in the ostentatious aesthetic that made his jukebox musical Moulin Rouge! such a divisively stunning work. Love him or hate him, no one can deny the man has style or the ego necessary to transform iconic literature and historical eras into contemporary art-infused visual epics that overwhelm our senses. No one does excess better—over-cranked and pulsing to music intentionally subverting the subject matter on display to play off emotional resonance and create a living breathing feeling that draws us into the frame. Luhrmann is more interested in staying true to the tonal shifts and visceral power of the text than content itself, preying on our preconceptions to deliver beloved classics as impossibly fresh and new.
Adapted with the help of regular collaborator Craig Pearce, the parallels with their turn of the century French cabaret are many. There’s the unbridled dancing ferocity of new rich debutantes flapping uninhibitedly amongst champagne, confetti, and pulsing beats; the love triangle between a beautiful woman (Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan), the brute she’s with (Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan), and the hopeful dreamer she wishes will take her away (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby); and the vibrantly saturated colors in a kaleidoscope of motion spilling forth from the memory of its narrator as he clicks away at the typewriter (Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway). Both films are depicted in a too-sharp manufactured sheen of promise that their storytellers reminisce. They’re darkly tragic tales retold with a smile of wonder and joy until the unavoidable results come flooding back.
For Carraway this story is a means of cathartic solace as he attempts to put his life back together in its aftermath. Writing under the orders of his psychiatrist, Nick recalls the innocence he felt upon leaving the Midwest for New York City—the quaint cottage on the shore he rented and the drive to educate himself on Wall Street and join its fraternity. With his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom residing on their large estate just across the water, he was neither alone nor wanting for company as he buckled down to make a success of himself. But as his old college chum Buchanan states upon taking him to the city for some amoral fun, it’s time for Nick to shed his wallflower status and engage in the life at his fingertips.
While he may embrace this newfound desire, however, Carraway will always be a watcher just on the outside of the action. Soon privy to the infidelities of two family members just as he gets caught up in the activities of his cultured, millionaire war hero neighbor Gatsby, Nick becomes lost in the roles of conscience and protector that consume him. He becomes a perfect embodiment of his story’s metaphorical God—a Dr. T. J. Eckleburg billboard with bespectacled eyes staring, judging, and comprehending the selfishness cutting a scar through humanity as its lustful greed covets money, flesh, and power. A man without wealth constantly overshadowed by the larger-than-life creatures yearning for him to be their confidant, Nick Carraway sits at the head of a very precarious table about to come tumbling down.
Full of characters as colorful as their surroundings, The Great Gatsby is all about appearances and the lies hidden beneath. From gas station owner George Wilson (Jason Clarke) doting upon Buchanan in hopes of befriending him while Tom whispers details of a secret rendezvous in his wife Myrtle’s (Isla Fisher) ear to the shady businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) confusing Gatsby’s friends with marks in mysteriously underhanded dealings to professional golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) cavorting around with whomever gives her the time and effort, Fitzgerald’s complex menagerie is included in their two-faced glory. We see old rich, new rich, and the overworked masses carrying both on their backs all filtered through Carraway’s naïve eyes quickly opening to the jungle around him. Friends, family, lovers—each is out for themselves.
We feel the smoldering heat of confrontation and weather in a climactic reveal, become enraptured in the glitter and gold of a hoard of guests who’ve never met their host, and get blinded by the stories of true love conquering all despite discovering that love isn’t all you need just like in Moulin Rouge! Jay-Z, will.i.am, and Beyoncé come crashing into the action just as Lana Del Rey’s gorgeous voice belts the wonderful “Young and Beautiful”; flashbacks to Gatsby’s past endeavors on the high seas and in the war burst through in foggy vignettes of heavy saturation and sparse monotone respectively; and the tumultuous emotions brewing under the surface bubble and boil until years of artifice and cultivated airs dissolve into fits of rage. 1920s New York’s pristine façade can only pretend for so long.
One could easily say the entire enterprise is overwrought and as excessive in its depiction of excess as its subject matter, but I believe that’s part of the appeal. We’re smothered by this world and this time just as the players fall victim to its promises. Yes, the 3D layering does nothing to help mask computer-generated backgrounds as sharp foreground focus pops the actors too far above blurred backgrounds; multiple instances of over-dubbing create disembodied voices atop unsynchronized mouth movements; and the neat superimposition of Fitzgerald’s text as Carraway speaks it becomes over-used and distracting at times. But it’s all part of the experience—the fabricated memorial to a bygone era of gorgeous fashion and in-progress architecture. It’s all an acceptable loss when the rest of our narrator’s memories shine so crisp, clear, and bright.
And while Maguire and Mulligan fit their roles of internal struggle with wants, needs, reality, and fiction like a glove and Edgerton and Debicki perfectly portray an almost mechanical ambivalence to others in lieu of their own carefully constructed happiness, the star is unsurprisingly DiCaprio’s titular enigma. Possessed by the smile, composure, and appeal necessary to project Gatsby’s aura of success, Leo also excels at the nervous, insecure man in love that gives his character depth. He is the backbone connecting everyone through desire, hatred, and idolatry as he effortlessly shifts between affable, formidable, hopeful, and hopeless. His Gatsby is larger than life and yet still believably Carraway’s equal despite using him for personal gain. The “Great” isn’t superfluous at all and no matter what rumors swirl, this giant is possibly the best man of them all.
 LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as Jay Gatsby in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “THE GREAT GATSBY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
 (L-r) ELIZABETH DEBICKI as Jordan Baker and TOBEY MAGUIRE as Nick Carraway in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “THE GREAT GATSBY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
 (L-r) CAREY MULLIGAN as Daisy Buchanan and JOEL EDGERTON as Tom Buchanan in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “THE GREAT GATSBY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures