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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

The Great Gatsby (3-D) | Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Isla Fisher | Review

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Jacqueline  Monahan

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Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
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The Great Gatsby  (3-D) | Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Isla Fisher | Review

The Roaring 20’s never roared as loudly or elegantly as when Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) lived on West Egg, Long Island in a decadent party palace on sumptuously opulent grounds, fueled by glamorous guests and bootlegged booze.  

Across the bay in elegant, well-heeled East Egg, lives Gatsby’s one true love, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) now married to philandering husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).  Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) is married to dimwitted auto mechanic George (Jason Clarke).  Daisy’s best friend is female tennis pro Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki).

When Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a would-be writer and stockbroker newly arrived from the Midwest, rents the small cottage next to Gatsby as a kind of retreat, the young man and the millionaire become fast friends, both literally and figuratively, racing through lives measured in cars and parties, speakeasies and massive flower arrangements.  

All of Gatsby’s efforts seek to attract the woman across the bay, whose home is designated a blinking green dock light that he stares at, full of love pangs and determination.  Constant companion Nick pieces together Gatsby’s past from stories and speculation that swirl around the man, especially the source of his vast wealth.
The year is 1922; the music, at least initially, is rap.  Welcome to director Baz Luhrmann’s (Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet) audio and visual representation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic story of love and deceit.  Yes, the man who put guns in Romeo and Juliet (1996) puts rap music in Gatsby with a soundtrack that includes Jay-Z, Beyoncé, André 3000, and Lana Del Rey.

C’mon, you’d be disappointed if he didn’t.  I’m not saying it works – just that it’s Luhrmann’s trademark addition to iconic material, anachronistic or not.  We’ve come to expect it, look for it, rail at the effrontery or marvel at the innovation.

Any undertaking of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is ambitious and hopeful. Translating the magic of the prose from page to screen is tricky at best.  Luhrmann jumps into Gatsby’s life in a loud, sometimes frenzied way, like a cinematic yelp to the viewer that proclaims, “We’re having fun.  Yes we are.  We’re having fun, fun, fun and you’d better believe us!”  

The director’s ultimate triumph is getting the viewer to discover the life beyond the façade of the ultra-rich, and when the camera stays in small rooms full of intimate dialogue, it succeeds much more than when it twists and turns through enormous hallways of orchestras, dancers, and reveling dandies and flappers.

That is precisely why the first third of the film does not work nearly as well as what comes after, with one breathtaking exception.  At the moment we see Gatsby’s face for the first time, it is at one of his over-the-top fetes, standing against a backdrop of the bay that leads to Daisy’s house, fireworks in full splendor.  Luhrmann has the good sense to underscore the scene with George Gershwin’s iconic masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue (which wasn’t completed until 1924, but for Luhrmann, that’s nearly concurrent).  The resulting minute captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s tragic, ersatz hedonist.

Leonardo DiCaprio captures the pomp, insecurity and magnetism of Gatsby in face and form, but stumbles a bit in being made to utter his favorite phrase, “old sport” in a manner that sounds both contrived and mispronounced – “old spawt.”  Other than this clunker, DiCaprio’s Gatsby is as golden as the actor’s own hair.

Tobey Maguire seems miscast, representing Nick’s callow youth in much too stark a contrast to his rich friend’s worldliness.  Carey Mulligan is suitably ethereal and breathy as Daisy, and Aussie Joel Edgerton portrays Tom as an entitled bully.  Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke give glimpses into the lives of the working class as Myrtle and George, an auto mechanic who can repair cars, but not his own marriage.  Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan is simply another witness to events, and Nick’s female counterpart in a cloche hat.

Luhrmann makes outstanding use of the 3-D process, injecting a modern effect that feels right at home with all of the excesses and ruminations of the players, as if they’re being studied and viewed through an old-fashioned stereoscope. Co-writing the screenplay with Strictly Ballroom collaborator Craig Pearce, Luhrmann retains the spirit of the novel with its characters enmeshed in a runaway world of extravagance, corruption, obsession, excess, deceit and regret.

Perhaps Luhrmann should have turned a Beatles tune for his ultimate message here, a lesson about money that Gatsby learns much too late to do him any good:

Can’t Buy Me Love.

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