The good Gatsby

Baz and Leo scratch the surface of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel.

Australian director Baz Luhrmann sure knows how to throw a party. Sprinkled throughout his big-budget 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel candidate The Great Gatsby are soirees so elaborate that I found myself wishing I had been cast as an extra. Confetti rains from the sky, a cast of thousands drowns their flapper dresses and pastel suits in booze while cutting a rug to a buzzy mash-up of period jazz and contemporary hip-hop, and everyone looks like they’re having a ball. Well, not quite everyone.

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is what’s known as “new money,” and though his parties are ragers, he hangs in the background lurking. (Most of his guests have never even met the man.) The source of Gatsby’s wealth is a conversation-starter for many of the characters, who lustily trade the hot rumors: Gatsby’s related to Germany’s evil Kaiser Wilhelm; he’s a bootlegger who profits from the sale of illegal alcohol; he’s an outright fraud, etc. When we first see Gatsby it’s at a distance, through the windows of a castle that would have made Charles Foster Kane envious. Who is this guy?

That’s the question Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) keeps mulling. Carraway has moved into a small cottage next to Gatsby’s palatial estate, and he can’t help but notice that every so often most of Manhattan society shows up at his neighbor’s house to dance and drink the night away. One day Carraway gets an invite to one of Gatsby’s parties, which is odd since no one gets an official invite. They just show up. What could Gatsby want with his lower-class neighbor?

Carraway is the cousin of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is the real source of Gatsby’s interest. The wife of polo-playing ladies’ man Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Daisy has a past with Gatsby. The Buchanans are solid “old money,” with Daisy decked out in in the latest fashions (and that impossibly long string of pearls) and Tom always fretting the rise of ethnic minorities when he’s not downing bottles of whiskey and visiting his mistress (Isla Fisher). These characters live in the rarefied air of extreme wealth in the days before the crash of 1929 would wipe most of them out. It looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

I won’t get into too many plot details (there’s lots of folks for whom this movie will be their first encounter with the nearly 80-year-old Gatsby), except to say that a love triangle develops between Daisy, Tom and Gatsby that runs deeper than it first appears and must end tragically. Though the love story is only one part of the novel — which also works as a meditation on greed and entitlement, and a brilliant period piece — it’s the one part that Luhrmann (who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce) chooses to focus on, sanding off many of the rough edges of the characters in the process.

This simpler (dumbed down?) Gatsby fits well in the summer movie silly season. It’s all flash, with showy performances (DiCaprio and Edgerton), dazzling visuals and some of the best uses of 3D yet attempted during this modern revival of the format. The period details are killer (1920s Manhattan is a stunning sight to behold, even if it all seems a little bit fakey through the Buddy Holly-esque 3D glasses), as is the soundtrack, which finds the exact right space between jazz and hip-hop to lay down the beats. (Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter served as Executive Producer.)

Overall, I much preferred this high-energy Gatsby to the gauzy Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version. Its heart is in the right place, even if its head never really gets in the game. That’s ok, though. Even though this Gatsby doesn’t possess the same brilliance as Fitzgerald’s novel (and how could it?), it’s an enjoyable diversion nonetheless. And hey, you can always just read the book.

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