In a sea of bland lookalike films, the brash, electric new production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark book The Great Gatsby is an art deco dream of the 1920s, fueled by too much gin and too many sequins. It is an astonishing film, as much a reminder of the magic of cinema as it is an ultimately tragic love story.
The film follows young writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) during the passion and heat-fueled summer of 1922. He’s rented a small cottage adjacent to the glorious mansion of the mysterious but popular Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby plays host to extravagant parties every weekend, hundreds of people reveling in orgies of music, alcohol and sex. It’s the place to be, except the enigmatic Gatsby never seems to attend his own parties.
Directly across the bay from Gatsby’s mansion is the estate of Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) with its green dock light, a light that sears into Gatsby’s heart every night. Daisy is Nick’s cousin and he soon becomes swept up their social whirl, including an ongoing flirtation with languid tennis pro Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). It’s the 20s and morals are loose, jazz is king and relationships aren’t what they were at the turn of the century.
Eventually Carraway learns that Gatsby has been in love with Daisy since they first met five years earlier, when he was in the Army. She’s married to Tom, but does she still love Gatsby, and could she leave Tom to rekindle her passion with the man she swore she’d wait for, until Tom came along and bought her love with impossibly expensive glitter?
There’s an underlying pathos throughout the movie that perfectly fits the era too, a breathless urgency to have one more drink, share intimacy with one more person before it’s too late. As a poor outsider, Nick represents all of us looking in voyeuristically at the excesses of the very rich, whether they’re treating rare motorcars flippantly or speaking ill of black servants even as the evening meal is served.
Between the homes of the wealthy residents of East and West Egg and the city of New York is a poor area, a visual harbinger of the tumult to come with The Great Depression, the city of ashes. Ceaselessly dirty and grey, the only color is the watchful eyes of optometrist T. J. Eckleburg’s long-abandoned billboard. As every high school Gatsby reader knows, these are metaphorically the eyes of God, a rather Orwellian judge who sees all but utters no judgment.
What can be said of a city that is so corrupt underneath the glitz and glamor that every denizen doesn’t already secretly know? This corruption is the source of the breathless urgency both in the story and in the production itself, a pell-mell flume ride to the inevitable climax.
I’m an unabashed fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and have enjoyed watching him grow into one of the best actors in Hollywood today, and his performance as the enigmatic Gatsby is pitch perfect, the self-made millionaire who is all too aware of how hollow his life really is. The performance that surprised me was that of Tobey Maguire. Best known for the Spider-Man trilogy, his Nick Carraway is nuanced, touching and sympathetic. He wants to be impressed, he wants to fit in, but he knows that there’s something fake about everything related to Gatsby, a corruption that reflects the entire glitzy world of the upper class.
Rather surprisingy for a period drama, you can choose to watch The Great Gatsby in 2D or 3D. I saw the 3D version and while I went in skeptical — as I am of all 3D productions — the more immersive nature of 3D fits perfectly with the extravagance of the time and the often frenetic pace of the film.
In a production reminiscent of director Baz Luhrmann’s earlier Moulin Rouge, the look and energy of The Great Gatsby is breathtaking. Parties never stop and are always excessive, whether it’s a blue-collar romp Tom and Nick have with Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) in her love nest or the extravagance of Gatsby’s own parties.
The Great Gatsby is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen in a long time, capturing the hope, the optimism and the glitter of the art deco era. Coupled with the engaging narrative and uniformly excellent performances, it’s a love story that transcends the clichés of the genre to stand as one of the best films released this year.