Like almost every American who has been through high school I read The Great Gatsby and like most high schoolers likely didn't appreciate the novel that first time around. Though the more accurate word is probably that I didn't comprehend all of what it was trying to say I still have yet to re-visit the novel since my sophomore year, but as I sat down to experience the latest film adaptation of the novel by the often flamboyant and always stylish director Baz Luhrman the parts of the story that I vaguely recalled seemed to escape me completely and I was then able to completely embrace the extravagant world in which Luhrman and his team had created for the audience to dig into and become all the better acquainted with the specific time period, the social climate, and the characters that it is necessary to care about before we become entranced with their melodramatic lives. It is to be understood that through the glitz and the glamour of the roaring twenties that this is essentially what F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel was if not a high form of it wrapped in commentary for the societal issues of the changing culture during that time. Though it would be easy to dismiss the film as a case of style over substance I was completely on board from the very beginning as the caliber of the cast here was able to elevate what might have been an otherwise overlooked aspect of the production. The depth each actor brings to his or her character lend an emphasis to the themes Fitzgerald touched upon and they are only embellished by Luhrman's preference to have everything as big and excessive as possible. It is a film that entices by the fantasy of the world it exists in and it holds our attention by being consistently stylish and letting it's cast bring their A-game that in turn creates a combination that captures the essence of everything I expected and wanted this film to be.

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio bring F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel to life.
It was a gutsy thing to try and adapt Fitzgerald's novel to the screen once again as former attempts, most notably the Jack Clayton/Robert Redford version, have failed to capture the essence of the novel and proved the work to be a tough project to crack. The plot would lead you to wonder why as it is a rather straightforward story. Our narrator comes in the form of Nick Carraway as portrayed by Tobey Maguire as  a young writer who has put his passion behind him and moved to New York to become a broker and make some actual money that might buy him a part in the lavish lifestyle he sees happening all around him in the summer of 1922. Nick gets himself a small cottage next to a castle of a mansion that is supposedly owned by a mysterious owner known only to many as Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Just across the bay lives his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her wealthy husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) who comes from old money and has a flair for messing around with other women on the side. If you've read the novel you know that all of this is simply an extravagant set-up to slowly pull back the layers of who Gatsby is, how he came to command such a fortune, and why he is inherently so eager to be friends with our narrator. What the movie probably does best is to set up the aura that surrounds the mythical status of Gatsby. From the way in which we are introduced to the title character to the way his parties and there guests are portrayed to be one large caravan of bewildered people simply looking to have a good time with no sense of accountability or much care for who is responsible for the circus of alcohol and confetti. It is a wonderful party each member of the audience is invited to, but as the story progresses we see the after party moments and having created an air of such mystique we find it all the more engaging to see the intimate moments that unfold the rest of the narrative.

What ultimately keeps us invested in the film through the exciting first half and up through to the more personal second half are the performances of the high caliber cast. I've never been overly fond of Maguire, though I've hardly seen him in anything more than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. I've simply never found him an appealing screen presence, but I didn't mind him here at all. I was worried due to the fact he would be guiding us through the story, but his Nick Carraway is nowhere near the timid, bland man that I imagined Maguire might make him, but instead he lends the role the right amount of intelligence and easygoing nature that makes him the perfect middle man. While the other major characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan  are more divisive in terms of likability which comes strictly from the way they were written in Fitzgerald's novel, the thing about their film incarnations is that despite the negative aspects of their characteristics I enjoyed the performance of Edgerton more than I did Mulligan's and Edgerton obviously portrays the more despicable character here. As Tom, the white supremacist millionaire, Edgerton has the right build and brings the right sense of arrogance and charm to the role that translates why Daisy has a certain weakness for the man despite his many flaws. Unfortunately, this has always been the downfall of Daisy and despite Mulligan being a fine enough actress to take on the role she is still unable to bring the justifications for the kind of admiration that Gatsby has for her. Mulligan plays the role with a classy air of effervescence, but in the end the overall appeal is more self-absorbed than bubbling over with personality. Mulligan does her best to play up the main conflict of the script that relies on her decision, but we only come to despise her for the shallow way she deserts Gatsby, especially when played by an actor such as DiCaprio. While all of these characters heavily contribute to the journey on which the story takes us no one defines it or seems to understand it as DiCaprio does. He sees the hollowness and disconnect Gatsby has with the real world and bringing that to the surface helps the audience see the true tragedy of it all.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom Buchanan
(Joel Edgerton) enjoy one of Gatsby's parties in director Bax Luhrman's film.
DiCaprio is on a hot streak, but really when has he not been? And that only continues if not is epitomized by the performance and the character he has here. The public persona he has goes hand in hand with that of Gatsby's: a mysterious man of wealth who keeps his personal life out of the public eye only to appear in high class projects which he almost always elevates by simply committing his name to them. DiCaprio gives his Gatsby the charisma necessary to pull off the extravagant facade he has put on while making us believe all the stories that have come to define who people think he is, what he's accomplished, but never questioning his lack of presence at his own gatherings. Where we don't come to care much for Tom and Daisy as they are simply rich folks creating there own drama to fill the emptiness of their lives that the money cannot, we attach ourselves to Gatsby because we know he desires something more, something meaningful, and it is in those earnest first scenes where Gatsby and Daisy are reunited for the first time in five years that we see the depth DiCaprio brings to his character. He is completely in love with her, obsessed you could say, but never do we find him creepy or off-putting but sensitive and debonair. The film smartly holds off the introduction of Gatsby as well which helps build the mystery around him while building our anticipation of seeing a marquee name with such credibility portray one of the most famous literary characters. The pay off, for me, was a completely satisfactory experience that was only aided by the impressive production design, the costumes, the special effects, and the soundtrack that matched so well with the style of the time period and the current, slick tone that makes the movie a pulsating tale about the dark side of the American dream and that emphasizes the effects of being recklessly excessive. It may be bad news for the people in the story, but this film is an impressive and thrilling interpretation to watch on the big screen, old sport.


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