Books everyone is forced to read in high school rarely make good movies. Not only do we bring all our personal baggage to the story (which basically hinges on how much we hated our junior class English teacher), but the book itself has been deconstructed, reconstructed, and overanalyzed for decades.
These novels are the picked-over corpses on the pop culture landscape and only a filmmaker with a screw loose would even think about adapting one of these into a movie.
Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, a man without a tight screw to be found anywhere in his body, to take on the bane of 17-year-old stoners everywhere: “The Great Gatsby.”
I doubt F. Scott Fitzgerald ever thought his little book would still be dutifully read nearly a century later, mostly because he was too busy thinking “Why did I marry this crazy lady!?!”
Even still, there has probably never been a better director than Luhrmann to breathe life into Fitzgerald’s tale of love, loss, and the life cycle of the American Dream set against the backdrop of the wanton excess of the Roaring Twenties.
Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!” “Romeo – Juliet”) lives for wanton excess; he eats it for breakfast.
His camera whips and swirls around lavish costumes, words that hang in space, and about a million pounds of glitter, all to the beat of a booming, mashed-up soundtrack. He even had the cajones to shoot the thing in 3D and then managed to pull it all off with surprisingly effective results.
Luhrmann also manages to capture the endless possibilities of New York City as the camera soars into Manhattan while notes from Gershwin mix with the rhymes of Jay-Z, perfectly encapsulating a city that has always existed simultaneously 30 seconds into the future and 100 years into the past.
While this all sounds like the makings of one big train-wreck, Luhrmann’s cinematic frivolity is right at home with the careless excess of the idle rich of the era.
Of course, it never hurts when you assemble a top-notch cast to drive it all home. Leonardo DiCaprio, in full-on, old-school-movie-star mode, plays mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, who arrives on Long Island in the summer of 1922 from seemingly nowhere
He throws obscenely lavish parties and becomes romantically entangled with socialite Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), a brutish philanderer from an old-money family.
Leading us through this world is our narrator and proxy, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who just so happens to be Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin.
There are also some nice supporting turns by Isla Fisher as Tom’s paramour, Myrtle, and Jason Clarke as Myrtle’s clueless grease-monkey husband.
Maguire is perfect as the movie’s moral center and Mulligan is not only enchanting but also manages to wring a great deal of sympathy out of her shallow character.
But it is DiCaprio who shines, lending not only the charm but the weight to a character who shapes all the action before falling victim to his own boundless optimism. It’s an effortless performance you could see being given by Clark Gable or Cary Grant.
I think what surprised me the most is how much of Fitzgerald’s carefully crafted prose made it up onto the screen, quite literally at the end of the movie, as the words of the novel’s iconic closing paragraph float out over the bay.
A good film adaptation of a book captures the thematic heart of the novel while finding something visually interesting and new to say. It is not too rigid or too loose with the source material.
Hitting this sweet spot is what makes “The Great Gatsby” an excellent film adaptation that will be happily watched for years to come by high schoolers who waited too long to read the book before an exam.
“The Great Gatsby” is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying, and brief language.