gatsby

“Wow.”

It’s a word uttered by Nick Carraway, played by a wide-eyed Tobey Maguire in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, that perfectly encapsulates the character’s first time diving into the decadent world of sex, booze, and jazz at a Long Island mansion soiree hosted by the enigmatic Jay Gatsby.

The party is a glittery, champagne-drenched ground-zero of hedonism. Flappers strut their stuff around a pool filled with revelers. Acrobats swing from the rafters. Peacock feathers fly through the air. And if that isn’t enough pomp and circumstance for you, fireworks explode above the water while streamers and confetti rain down on guests.

It’s this standout sequence that exemplifies Lurhmann’s signature hyper-realistic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to the big screen for another go-round. Here is where all of the blood, sweat, and tears of the director’s set and costume designers can be laid out in a richly detailed showcase — in 3D no less — that is meant to be seen as it is experienced. It’s the tastiest piece of art-directed eye candy I’ve seen in a while. Diddy only wishes he could throw a bash in the Hamptons like this.

For the few of you who never read The Great Gatsby in high school, here’s the gist: Carraway, a WWI vet and struggling writer, moves into a modest home next to an estate owned by the titular rich dude, reunites with his cousin Daisy, who’s got a new beau named Tom, and develops a friendship/infatuation with his blond-haired next-door neighbor in what could possibly be literature’s first case of bromance in the 20th century.

The movie does a admirable job introducing us to this world where the poor are dirt poor (really, they’re covered in soot and grime) and the rich are ludicrously so, oblivious to the real world around them. Lurhmann & Co. also dazzle with establishing the mystique that surrounds the elusive Gatsby. He’s a man of mystery, no doubt about that, and he’s certainly the talk of the town, so when we finally see him — nearly 30 minutes into the film — in the form of the debonair DiCaprio in a classic turn-around-on-a-balcony shot, it’s somewhat worthy of applause (the theater I sat in put their hands together for the anticipated moment).

Leonardo DiCaprio, effortlessly settling into a role that was once made iconic by Robert Redford, brings his requisite gravitas and charm but also delivers something unexpected; he turns the mysterious millionaire, at one point, into a vulnerable and nearly bumbling bloke as he tries to build up the courage to reunite with his long-lost lover, the pixie-ish Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, adorable without being ingratiating). It’s a scene that offers us a rare peek into the actor’s comedic capabilities without letting it sink into a sea of silliness. But at the same time, he’s also briefly letting us into his psyche, and we sense that the dude clearly has some issues. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is an aging golden boy (FYI, in 1922, 32 is considered middle age) who has moved mountains to be with his one true love. His hubris remains grounded despite the fact that he’s surrounded by all the luxuries in the world and because of the fact that Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, a wealthy industrialist played with a magnetic gruffness by a pitch-perfect Joel Edgerton (Warrior).

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But it’s Elizabeth Debicki, as Jordan Baker, and Isla Fisher, as the ill-fated Myrtle Wilson, who surprise and delight amidst the star wattage of their costars. Both actresses slip into their old-school roles with some old-school flair. Watching them is like watching a movie from the 1950s about the 1920s. They, particularly Fisher, inject enough over-the-topness that was characteristic of a long-gone era in cinema.

As for the romance between Jay and Daisy, while it may not be as star-crossed as the one DiCaprio endured in Titanic or in Shakespeare’s teen love story, it carries out in a loud way (courtesy of Luhrmann’s colorful bells and whistles), which makes it fall a little short of being as epically engaging as it wants to be.

The very modern soundtrack — everyone from Jay-Z to Florence and the Machine are on board — successfully links 1920s party culture with a 2010s sensibility. One can’t help but wonder if Gatsby & Co. were living in New York today, they’d probably have their own reality show on Bravo…or E!…or MTV. The contemporary pop music works here (like it did in 1996’s Romeo & Juliet and 2001’s Moulin Rouge). Be sure to keep an ear open for Emeli Sande’s jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.”

The tension that builds between the two men who love the same woman inevitably explodes in a third-act scene that sees Gatsby slip up and unravel and DiCaprio unmask his character’s true colors. It all leads to an eventual denouement that is as tragic as it is poetic. After all, Luhrmann’s aforementioned films pretty much have the same running theme in terms of endings. So there shouldn’t be any surprises there, especially if you’ve also read the book.

And if you haven’t, then seriously, where did you go to school?

3.5/5 stars (That party scene: 5)

Hiko Mitsuzuka (@TheFirstEcho)