So much has been written about Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that I won’t try to sort it out, refute it or acknowledge the debates here. I’ll simply say that, while the great novel (really a novella) must be respected, movies always have been their own entities with their own identities. And this one, despite some slips in characterization, is a beautifully crafted triumph as a modern entertainment.
Modernity is a key to this early 1920s tale of a man from humble origins (Gatsby, played by an impeccably controlled Leonardo DiCaprio) who carves out an empire via shady means, then tentatively reconnects with the privileged girl (the lovely yet vacant Daisy, played by Carey Mulligan) whom he briefly knew before shipping off to war, then let slip through his fingers while he clawed his way to wealth upon his return.
And now he wants her back.
But this Gatsby is less about the Gatsby-Daisy relationship (she hardly seems worth the fixation, anyway) than that of Gatsby and his new neighbor in a humble cottage next to his Long Island castle: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Their talks, and Carraway’s narration via voice-overs and lovingly displayed words on screen, delineate the true meanings of this art deco saga and its parallel doomed love affair between Carraway (Fitzgerald’s surrogate) and brash, powerful, dizzyingly wealthy and utterly romanticized New York, before the giddy Roaring ’20s and heady Jazz Age gave way to the stock market crash of 1929.
Each viewer will take away different things from the film, new on a Blu-ray Combo Pack, on DVD and in digital download Tuesday from Warner Bros. But the one thing I took from it that impressed me most was that the story behind the movie was as fascinating as the film itself, and gave the film even greater meaning.
I’m speaking of almost two hours of extra features on the Blu-ray disc, in which a charming Lurhmann is our articulate narrator and guide, showing not only the logistics of creating his movie magic but also the meanings behind his narrative and artistic decisions.
Featurettes focusing on the film’s incredible fashions and strong song score are especially riveting, along with a 14-minute segment of deleted scenes, each introduced by Luhrmann.
I must say that in all the years I’ve reviewed DVDs and now Blu-ray, and for all the unused footage I’ve seen unveiled, these are the finest such scenes I’ve ever witnessed. No matter how Luhrmann rationalizes it, these weren’t cut for failures, but for time. The film runs 142 minutes without them, and he simply needed to pare down.
Also pay special attention to Gatsby Revealed, a series of “making of” featurettes for various scenes. Most impressively shot were Gatsby’s parties — enormous affairs with rivers of alcohol, frenzied dancing and a carnival of New York’s wealthy and wannabes flocking to Gatsby’s estate.
While much of the film (shot in Australia) makes use of CG in post-production to display garishly colorful New York and nearby environs, the poolside party scenes went farther: They went real. Hundreds of extras were immaculately costumed and choreographed, becoming a special effect in themselves. In an era of so much distancing CG artifice (for which this film, itself, is also guilty), the amazing reality of these scenes’ galvanizing exuberance is a rare reward.
I also heartily endorse the decision to use contemporary music for such scenes, not for anachronistic irony, but to punch up the vivid modernity of a now-distant time for today’s audiences. Besides, the music fits the spectacle in spirit.
Unlike many, I’ve never been a huge fan of Luhrmann. But this film and the absorbing story of its creation changed that.
Thank you, Baz Luhrmann. Your great Great Gatsby wasn’t solely about doing justice to Fitzgerald, as I know you tried to do. It was also about doing justice to great filmmaking for our time. And though set 90 years ago, your The Great Gatsby is as modern as movies get.
— Bruce Westbrook