There are probably a lot of viewers feeling doubtful about Baz Luhrman's big screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby: folks who remember being bored by the novel during high school lit class; die-hard Fitzgerald fans who think no adaptation can do it justice; viewers wary of Luhrman because they felt Moulin Rouge was an exhausting, gay acid-trip; this names but a few of the concerned parties.
All of the above factions, however, have very little to fear. Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not stodgy or boring, it's not a shallow betrayal of the source material, and it's not an unrelentingly hyper-manic series of musical sequences. The picture is a seemingly impossible success: a beautiful, entertaining, tragic, well-paced, and perhaps most shockingly, reverent adaptation of what any sane person might well have labeled an unfilmable story.
The movie opens with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an aspiring bond salesman from a middle-class branch of an otherwise old-money family, who has just moved into a cottage on Long Island in the summer of 1922. The cultural explosion of the Jazz Age has seized upon New York City, and a society that was wearing corsets and dancing the minuet scarcely a decade earlier is adrift in a freshly shaken snow globe of post-WWI social upheaval, with the classist strictures of aristocracy and peasantry standing face-to-face with the self-made millionaires of the industrial boom. Prohibition has backfired, making alcohol plentiful and cheap, Belle Époque frills and fuss have been replaced with breathable, moveable flapper attire, and the mannered rituals of social dancing have been replaced with freestyle booty shaking to jazz and blues. And nothing seems to exemplify this brave new world that Nick's been dropped into better than his impossibly rich neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose opulent, weekend-long parties are a breathtaking spectacle of desperate energy, roaring-'20s dress, and moneyed, art-deco furnishings. Indeed, it should be noted that the art direction alone is reason enough to drink in this gorgeous movie as pure 1920s-era style porn. In fact, it might be the first film to benefit from the 3D experience by way of bringing the colors and textures of its magnificent sets and costumes all the more to life.
The devastatingly handsome, disarmingly charismatic Gatsby serves as a terribly fascinating figure, to Nick and to everyone in New York society. He is at once guarded and guileless, secretive and earnest, cunning and sincere. Questions swirl all over town about where his immense wealth comes from, since all that's known is that he lives on the west side of Long Island, where mansions are mainly owned by new money -- unlike the east side, which is home to old-money families like Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her brute of a husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Nick soon discovers that Gatsby once knew Daisy, five long years ago, before Gatsby left to fight in the Great War. More than knew, they were deeply in love -- and perhaps still are.
The narrative that unfolds is epic and romantic, but never loses the thread of Fitzgerald's subtext about the complex illusion of the American Dream. Anyone who's read the book might wonder how, in this grand emotional opera of a feature film (one by Baz Luhrmann, no less), the titular hero can possibly remain so completely in our good graces, even as his dream of ultimate success begins to appear fragile and his faith in Daisy naïve. But instead of making Gatsby seem like a deluded fool to us, Daisy and the old guard she comes from make Gatsby seem all the more admirable for his pure, enduring hope. While Luhrmann is forced to cut plenty of beloved material from the novel simply for the sake of the running time (with any luck, we'll see more of Elizabeth Debicki's bewitching performance as Jordan Baker on some future DVD release), he never opts to indulge his trademark love of grand romance in place of what Fitzgerald provided on the page. Rather, Luhrmann deftly channels that very penchant through the noble beauty of Gatsby's faith in the illusive ideal that in America, our destinies are ours to create, and therefore, our history is ours to rewrite.