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Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

by Bob Garver

May 13, 2013. Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his excessively modern takes on stories from other eras. His most popular is film is 2001’s “Moulin Rouge”, a pop musical set in 19th-century Paris. He’s also the visionary behind the bizarre 1996 version of “Romeo and Juliet”, a film that proves just how awkward Shakespeare’s English sounds in the real world. Now Luhrmann has been put in charge of “The Great Gatsby”, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era-defining look at 1920’s decadence. The film thankfully doesn’t try for a modern setting, but rather goes for a modern look at a classic setting. I can’t say the idea is pulled off flawlessly, but it certainly delights in places.

Those familiar with the story know that the main character isn’t really Gatsby, but rather Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Gatsby’s next-door neighbor. Nick lives in the trendy West Egg on Long Island across the lake from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). One night he attends one of the legendary parties thrown by his mysterious millionaire neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby comes with a convoluted backstory that keeps changing (it’s hard not to draw parallels between him and that “Most Interesting Man in the World” Dos Equis guy), but whatever he is, he’s incredibly charismatic. Gatsby soon pulls Nick into a plan to reunite with Daisy, his long-lost love from before he was rich. The plan naturally doesn’t sit well with Tom, and a story that already included obsession and infidelity eventually comes to include murder.

At the very least, the gets the audience to care about the characters. We want to see Nick enjoy whatever happiness he can grasp and Tom is pretty despicable for someone whose ire toward Gatsby is actually quite understandable. But of course the really sympathetic one is Gatsby. He has everything material that one could ever want, but he’s willing to risk it all for his genuine feelings of love for a woman who is more shallow than even she knows. His fate is no secret (even if you’re not familiar with the story, the movie makes it pretty clear what’s coming), yet the audience at my screening took his grand exit with a sense of loss not felt since that other movie where DiCaprio sank into the water.

The film is being pushed for its visual style, and that style is quite impressive. It has a level of color, sharpness, and detail that didn’t exist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day, but I imagine he would have approved had he known it was an option. The problem is that the film doesn’t look like it’s set in the 1920s, it looks like a contemporary production with the 1920s as a sort of loose theme. It’s appropriate that Gatsby’s parties are so central to the film, because the film looks like an elaborate costume party. To be sure, the costumes and sets and stunning to the point where they’ll probably get Oscar nominations, but they’re so elaborate that they feel unnatural and distracting.

This version of “The Great Gatsby” isn’t as loathsome as it’s been made out to be. Sure, the visuals are overly extravagant bordering on gaudy, but it makes sense given that one gets the impression that that’s exactly how Gatsby likes them. Leonardo DiCaprio is as charming as ever, proving once again that he can play the heartthrob regardless of the character’s economic status. There weren’t a lot of people asking for “The Great Gatsby” as a summer blockbuster, but now that we have it we may as well admire the things it does right.

Two Stars out of Five.

“The Great Gatsby” is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. Its running time is 143 minutes.