The moment when we first see Leonardo DiCaprio’s face as the title character in Baz Luhrmann’s lavish adaptation of The Great Gatsby is perhaps the biggest “movie star” moment of DiCaprio’s career to date. As fireworks pop off in the night sky behind him, he turns and raises his glass to the camera in a way that exudes high-octane star charisma.
If you are a Luhrmann fan, and you appreciated his over-stylized vision in works like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (Let’s just forget Australia ever happened, shall we?), you are bound to find much to like in his Gatsby. It’s full of eye-popping visuals, lush costumes and terrific soundtrack stunts. (I loved hearing Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey while watching a picture set in the roaring ’20s.)
More important than any of the visual and audio treats is the fact that DiCaprio gives us cinema’s first “great” Gatsby. (Robert Redford played Gatsby once, and I am falling asleep just thinking about it.) Luhrmann slows the pace and lowers the volume for dramatic moments, and DiCaprio seizes these moments with substantial authority.
His Gatsby is an obsessed heartbreaker, relentlessly pursuing the love of the married Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), a woman he met five years previous before going off to war. A lesser actor could make Gatsby come off as a true nutball/psycho, but DiCaprio gives us somebody who garners sympathy and makes complete sense in his own deranged, sad way. His Gatsby is the sweetest stalker you will see onscreen this year.
It’s great to see DiCaprio sharing the screen with longtime friend Tobey Maguire; he is equally good as Nick Carraway, who narrates the film as he writes a novel within the confines of a sanitarium. Their camaraderie feels quite natural.
Maguire commands the most screen time in the movie, and that’s a good thing. Before he became Spider-Man, he was one of Hollywood’s more-reliable dramatic actors in films like The Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys. He’s the perfect choice for Carraway, a man who is at once intelligent, artistic and socially naïve. Maguire always does a fine job when required to look cute and confused.
One of the film’s greatest surprises is the amount of depth Joel Edgerton brings to the role of Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s lug of a husband. Edgerton commands one of the film’s greatest scenes: a confrontation with Gatsby regarding Daisy in a New York City hotel, over a block of ice and some whiskey. Edgerton makes this more than just a standard showdown between two men over a woman: He turns it into a bona fide romantic apocalypse.
As the object of multiple affections, Daisy, as played by Mulligan, offers bountiful charms to go with fatal vacuous tendencies. There are times when Gatsby’s pursuit is quite understandable based on how luminescent Mulligan looks in the role. Yet Mulligan, an actress of considerable talent, gives Daisy something far more complex below the surface. As anybody who has read the novel knows, Daisy is doomed to a dim emotional life, yet Mulligan has you always rooting for her to wise up.
Luhrmann made the daring choice to shoot the movie in 3-D, and this stands as one of the best usages of the medium. I wouldn’t think that a film simply set in 1920s New York would benefit from 3-D, but Luhrmann proves me wrong. Indeed, streaming confetti, orchids, popping champagne and DiCaprio’s face all get wonderful enhancement in 3-D. It adds a major element of fun to the film.
Some might decry Luhrmann’s crazy music choices, as he mixes modern music with old Cole Porter standards, yet he does it well. When Lana Del Rey’s voice comes up over a moving romantic moment, it doesn’t feel like a stunt. (I kind of hate her music, but it works really well in the film.) Music is indeed timeless when it comes to Luhrmann movies.
The film was delayed from December of last year (aka awards season). I thought it was strange to put an adaptation of a literary classic in the middle of summer-movie season, but after seeing it, the move makes perfect sense. It’s a heady movie, but it’s also the sort of feast for the eyes we want to see this time of year. And let’s face it: If the movie is good, and it has DiCaprio in it, that usually means big box office.
I imagine this will be another great DiCaprio performance that won’t get noticed come Oscar time. How this guy doesn’t have an Oscar yet is beyond me. He does have Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street coming later this year, so maybe that will put him in awards play.
As for that green dock light that Gatsby gazes upon through the night fog—where Daisy lives, across the lake—it’s a haunting image that will stick with you. Green traffic lights were making me weepy as I drove home after The Great Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby is playing at theaters across the valley.