It is easy to see why actor Leonardo DiCaprio is drawn to Jay Gatsby. As he played previously in “Titanic” and “Romeo and Juliet,” Leo’s character in “The Great Gatsby” is a hopeless romantic, willing to die for a young inaccessible beauty.
In the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, Gatsby is the enigmatic millionaire, whom everyone talks about, but nobody knows. Such a mystery man is tough to flesh out in a multi-buck splashy 3-D film extravaganza. While co-writer/ director Baz Luhrmann’s opulently entertaining movie sometimes misses the mark, Di- Caprio is dead-on in his depiction of the gangster with fatally deep and delusional feelings for the delicate, but deadly Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). He even pulls off the affected Gatsbyism, “old sport,” without making the audience cringe, though his bullying rival, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgarton), does.
Tom has reason to cringe. Upstart Gatsby has returned from the Army and World War I with much new money and a Long Island castle to steal away his wife, Daisy. She’s fed up with Tom’s philandering and is weak for real love. But, to Gatsby, Daisy’s love is religion and he has staked everything on it, even his soul.
That is the heart of the Fitzgerald masterwork which, with his elegant writing and incisive social commentary, has sustained for nearly nine decades. Four films have attempted to tackle this seemingly simple, but curiously complex Americandream gone-bad. This one has Luhrmann’s music-video razzle-dazzle, but also a few powerful verbal boxing matches, played strong and straight right out of the novel.
The difficulty with Fitzgerald is how to keep the wonderful words intact, without sinking the film’s visual swing. The director’s device is to have narrator and Fitzgerald stand-in Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) writing it all down, as he recuperates from Gatsby-Buchanan ordeal in a sanitarium. In fact, often the author’s sentences are seen floating across the screen. Respectful, but a bit dull and didactic.
The question is, would Fitzgerald himself have liked this movie? Considering that he died in 1940, drunk and depressed by public indifference, he’d be glad that “Gatsby” is once again seen as great.