In “The Great Gatsby,” director Baz Luhrmann does for the Roaring ’20s what he did for the Bohemian Revolution in “Moulin Rouge.” If you didn’t know the film was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, you might think it was a sequel.
For those unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s source material (or who can’t remember what they read back in high school), “The Great Gatsby” tells the story of a mythic Long Island playboy named Jay Gatsby. In spite of his vast wealth and mega-parties, Gatsby’s origins remain shrouded in a mystery that is peeled back a piece at a time once a young stockbroker named Nick Carraway enters his life. Nick’s cousin is Daisy Buchanan, the young wife of an “old-money” heir and polo enthusiast named Tom, and she also happens to be Gatsby’s long-lost love. Once Nick arranges a meeting between the two, Gatsby’s metaphoric palace begins to crumble.
Fitzgerald’s novel was the ultimate portrait of the Roaring ’20s, and Luhrmann does an excellent job of transferring that image to film. Beneath a grandiose excess-celebrating production, he offers a savage critique of wealth and class and the people and lifestyles we hold up as heroes, not only then but now. It’s impossible to watch Gatsby the fallen hero and not see parallels to our modern-day tabloid fodder.
“The Great Gatsby” may be a timeless story, but Luhrmann explicitly connects it to our day, as he did previously with “Romeo + Juliet’s” gangland interpretation and “Moulin Rouge’s” pop music mash-ups. New interpretations of contemporary songs like Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” litter the soundtrack, but Luhrmann’s intentions become more transparent as Gatsby drives into New York past a convertible full of partiers that look like they were taken straight out of a rap video.
Leonardo DiCaprio (who previously worked with Luhrmann in “Romeo + Juliet”) is excellent as Gatsby: confident, sleek and flashy on the outside, then suddenly awkward and vulnerable once Daisy appears. Carey Mulligan is perfect as the doe-eyed damsel in distress who is every bit as weak as she is dreamy, and the audience views the film through the grounded-if-jaded eyes of Carraway (Tobey McGuire), whose character echoes Ewan McGregor’s flashback-narration in “Moulin Rouge” right down to the typing. All the performances are effective, even if they are shrouded behind Lurhmann’s hyper-real dramatic style.
Like most of his previous films, “Gatsby” is lavish, over-the-top, charming and deeply tragic. It most closely echoes “Moulin Rouge,” and that may be the easiest way to evaluate the film. if you liked “Moulin Rouge,” you’ll probably like “Gatsby.” If you didn’t, then you’re in for more of the same.
“The Great Gatsby” is rated PG-13 for episodes of violence, consistent (though never explicit) sexual content and some profanity. If you felt like “Moulin Rouge” was too much for the kids, you’ll feel the same way about this film.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.