A good “Gatsby”

We wonder what all the fuss is about. By that we mean the negative press. From the early reviews, you would think that Baz Luhrmann’s  “The Great Gatsby” was the worst thing to hit the screen since, well, the last film version of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s seminal novel of delusional Jazz Age dreams.

Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” may not be a masterpiece. It’s a bit too frenetic and careless for that. But it’s by no means a disaster or a mediocrity either. Rather it’s a very good film of a terrific novel that bears reading and rereading this summer.

Like Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – the mysterious self-made millionaire who wants so desperately to recapture Daisy Fay (Carey Mulligan), the Louisville belle who eluded him on the eve of World War I – Luhrmann’s film tries too hard to impress, particularly in the beginning.  Fitzgerald does a splendid job of laying out the movable feast of old money and new money excess, as seen through the shrewd, sympathetic eyes of his narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who belongs to this world only because he’s Daisy’s cousin.  But Luhrmann, taking full advantage of modern technology, piles it on. Gatsby doesn’t  live in a mere mansion. He lives in a castle. Roadsters don’t just zoom up to the estate. They careen around its long drives.  Yep, we get it – those ribald, ripping, riotous, risky Roaring ’20s.

By laying it on so thick, Luhrmann betrays an insecurity as a storyteller that creeps into the hearts of his viewers and gums up a wonderful narrative that really doesn’t kick in until the film’s second half. Then we get a crackling story about the unbridgeable gulf between those who are born to the elite and those who  aspire to elitism that explodes in The Plaza Hotel scene. In a sweltering suite, the five main characters – who include Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Daisy’s brutish, philandering alpha dog of a husband, and vixenish golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) – finally put some of their cards face up on the table and we see all the waste, rage and despair that deception, selfishness and materialism can wreck.

Nothing changes, of course, because we, like Gatsby, still long for that green light at the end of the dock that will always elude us.

The cast is uniformly excellent, perhaps making the characters more likable than they are in the novel, but then, film is rarely as tough as literature.  Jay-Z has done a superb job of synthesizing   Craig Armstrong’s elegiac score, period music in the party scenes and hip hop, used as a distancing, documentary tool.  And the Prada dresses and Tiffany jewels, a collaboration with production/costume designer Catherine Martin – double wow.

If only Luhrmann – who turns up as a waiter in the central party scene – trusted himself and us more. But then, he, too, is one of Fitzgerald’s boats against the current.

For more on Luhrmann and Martin’s collaboration with Tiffany & Co., check out WAG’s May “Heating Up” issue at wagmag.com.

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