Every actor is a Gatsby, assuming an identity, inventing a mythology, essaying a life less ordinary.
Yet as Jay Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t look to the horizons of a beautiful future so much as evoke his filmic past; when he reconnects with lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan), his face – now so often a scowl – softens and blossoms, recalling his Romeo, all hope and heart.
It’s a tiny moment – and all the more welcome for it in Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling but exhausting take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic-lit staple.
Nouveau riche Gatsby lives in seclusion across an exclusive Long Island bay from Daisy and old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). When Daisy’s cousin, Nick (Tobey Maguire), hires a cottage beside Gatsby’s castle-like mansion – where parties rock the rafters every weekend, in a ‘Disneyland for adults’ (to use Luhrmann’s own, highly apt phrase) – the star-crossed lovers are finally, fatalistically reunited.
Many baulked at the idea of Fitzgerald in 3D, but Luhrmann’s movie isn’t just an adaptation; it’s also an evocation of the early, experimental days of filmmaking.
His flattened palette tallies with vintage hand-tinted black-and-white footage, his party scenes are scaled-down Busby Berkeley numbers and his characters are perpetually in-character themselves, only accidentally revealing their real selves. (Viewed in 2D, the cinematography still feels spacious, but even then struggles to contain all the action.)
Music isn’t quite the storytelling tool it’s been in previous Luhrmann outings; Craig Armstrong’s score is gorgeous, creating continuity with Baz’s past tragic love affairs, but few of the modern songs grip like the oldies.
Lana Del Ray’s pre-emptively heartbroken ‘Young & Beautiful’ and Florence Welch’s startling lament (sung live to the footage, as detailed in the extras) are exquisite, but it takes a period piece, Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, to really wow, as Gatsby finally appears, champagne glass in hand, fireworks exploding behind him.
It’s this moment, more than any other, that sums up Luhrmann’s Gatsby – a grand gesture that lights up the sky but leaves little behind.
Extras go backstage (the Australian set was frequently rained-out) and reveal the extent of the VFX – in short, all Manhattan is CGI. DiCaprio contributes but Mulligan proves almost as elusive as Daisy.
Meanwhile, deleted scenes restore Nick’s relationship with socialite Jordan (newcomer Elizabeth Debicki) and a touching coffin-side scene, all intro-ed by Luhrmann, who makes a great case for their excision. If only he’d been more ruthless with the movie’s razzle-dazzle, which gives us the surface of the book but only flickers of its complex, nuanced soul.
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