Movie Review: “The Great Gatsby”

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Director Baz Luhrman’s new film tells the story of a rich man who grew up dirt poor, a dreamer called Gatsby, in the Roaring Twenties. These were the “crazy years,” the years of jazz, flappers, dancing, youth rebellion and Art Deco.

The movie’s good entertainment, but it pretty much skates along that shiny surface. It is framed by a device which has Nick Caraway compose what some consider the Great American Novel from a sanitarium, where he’s been committed for “morbid alcoholism.”

As a way of illustrating that Caraway was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stand-in, this isn’t bad; still, it feels unnecessary. Caraway is played by Tobey McGuire, whose vacancy is starting to register less as sweetness than as absence.

Luhrman is a showman and a visionary, and either you go with his vision or you do not. He wrote the Gatsby screenplay with Craig Pearce, his co-writer on manic projects like Moulin Rouge and his very rock ‘n’ roll version of Romeo + Juliet. Like those movies, The Great Gatsby is full of playful time-travel, especially musical.

This is creative in the way it grapples with the key idea of presenting the past as a modern world. Yet, not unlike Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, it’s not as brash and bold in this as we’d perhaps hoped.

We do get a burst of Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” when Gatsby’s gleaming yellow Duesenberg pulls up alongside a carful of African American revelers as they careen across the Queensboro Bridge. Here Luhrman is saying that rap is the modern equivalent of jazz in the ’20s: An African American music that electrified the larger culture. Mostly, though, Jay-Z’s score is tastefully blended in, perhaps rather too tastefully.

We do get a gorgeous panorama of New York when Caraway exclaims, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” Problem is, all the New York scenes are CGI. My objections are the usual ones: CGI imagery is untethered, weightless, there’s no physicality. It looks like a comic book.

Even the ballyhooed orgy scene is not as debauched as one might hope, though I did dig the jazz man on the balcony blowing his axe, the camera swooping. We feel the wild, feverish heat and energy of the big city at night, back when the city was the very heart of the Jazz Age.

How about the 3D? At times it brings you into Gatsby’s opulent world. You’re among the crush of bodies shuffling down the grand entrance hall of his mansion, spilling out onto a tableaux of glitter and action and light. And it was fun to enter a secret speakeasy chockfull of misbehaving senators, where Gatsby confers with the man who threw the 1919 World Series, Meyer Wolfsheim (the renowned Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan).

What of the green light? It still hovers out over the glistening waters, sometimes flaring before our eyes. When Gatsby reaches for it, the 3D enhances the physical and spiritual distance.

From their billboard, Dr. Eckleburg’s famous glasses still survey the Ashes, that desolate area in between Long Island and the city, where sultry, doomed Myrtle (Isla Fisher) still languishes in her room above the garage.

My favorite moment, though, was the introduction of Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan). In a conversation on the way to the theater, I was reminded that, in the book, Daisy is always in white. At the Versailles-like grounds of the East Egg mansion of Daisy’s husband, cruel Tom (Joel Edgerton, reminding me of a young Harvey Keitel), we are ushered into a geometric, pavilion-like chamber. Billowing all around us are curtains of flowing white. Over the top of a chaise-longue, Daisy’s bejeweled hand lolls. We go over the top and there she is. It’s a vision in white.

There we also meet Jordan, charismatically played by Elizabeth Debecki. She’s something of a love interest for Caraway, not that the rather sexless Maguire seems very interested in her.

The basic problem with 3D, though, is insurmountable. It works by tricking the brain, and the result is a headache.

He’s still a fascinating character, Gatsby. Nobody really knows where he got the money to buy his great mansion across the bay from Daisy, hoping to lure her with the bright lights. He was a soldier in the world war (and an assassin for Kaiser Wilhelm, is the whispered rumor).

Gatsby is a man who invented his identity himself. He may be a fake, a bootlegger, but there’s something innocent about him. His love is pure. He’s a dreamer, which is to say, an American.

As Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio is okay. His performance slightly evokes Orson Welles, which mostly made me muse on what a great Gatsby Welles would have made.

That said, you can almost see Gatsby dreaming when DiCaprio delivers the line, preserved in the script, that sums up what the book is all about:

“You can’t repeat the past,” said Caraway to Gatsby.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

Whether you can or you can’t, it seems we try. First as farce, then as tragedy, Marx might have said. This movie isn’t quite either, unfortunately, but it’s good entertainment.

Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other reviews at The Moving World.