May 09--If the commercials pumping "No Church In The Wild" weren't an indication, or the soundtrack featuring tracks by Beyonce, Andre 3000 and Lana Del Rey, or the fact that Jay-Z is one of the film's executive producers, director Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" is far from a purist one.
But if you can live with Luhrmann's usual "Baz-isms" and the fact that you might hear "H to the Izzo" and a few other of Jay-Z's hits splashed throughout the movie, you'll really enjoy "The Great Gatsby," a visually thrilling, well-acted take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece that's surprisingly faithful at its heart.
Just stick with it through the first 15 minutes.
In the early sequences, Luhrmann's pace flies by so fast that it feels a little kooky, especially when the stereoscopic effect lags behind the hyperactive camera moves.
Also, those who have read Fitzgerald's novel will be treated to a new introduction. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce (who also worked with the director on "Moulin Rouge'') have given more attention to Nick Carraway's role (played by Tobey Maguire) -- essentially Fitzgerald's alter ego -- by first showing him as a patient at a sanitarium, urged by a shrink to exorcise his memories of the fateful summer of 1922 by writing them down.
Some surely will think that Maguire's performance feels a little dry. At times, movie-goers will want Carraway to indulge his emotions or show some kind of natural curiosity, but this is one of the many facets of the adaptation where Luhrmann stays true to Fitzgerald's characters. Nick Carraway simply was a passive observer for the most part, and just as he does in the novel, he only displays his outrage near the film's end. Luhrmann made the right choice, and Maguire played it fairly well.
After all, this story may be Nick Carraway's, but it's all about the great Jay Gatsby. And, boy, is he great.
Leonardo DiCaprio digs into the nooks and crannies of this enigmatic character in a performance that few other actors could give. He's charming. He's tough. He's vulnerable. He's touching. He's funny. And he's quite a captivating orator. You hear it all in Gatsby's favorite phrase, "old sport," a verbal tic that DiCaprio delivers with love and re-assurance even in passing conversation. It's a tremendous performance from an increasingly tremendous actor.
Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire and rumored bootlegger who lives in the "new rich" New York suburb of West Egg, doesn't seem too interested in the spectacular parties he gives in his impressive mansion. But Luhrmann certainly is.
With "Moulin Rouge" and even "Australia," the director has proven that he's a master showman, and he doesn't disappoint with his visuals in "The Great Gatsby." The first party scene -- there are two big ones, as well as a definitive speakeasy sequence -- can only be described as amazing, bursting with exaggerated colors and incredible detail that give us a look at what that black-and-white era might have looked like in 3-D.
Instead, Gatsby devotes endless hours to staring across the harbor at a green beacon in front of the East Egg mansion where Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan) live. Here's a spoiler (in case 88 years and your high school literature class didn't provide a spoiler buffer big enough): Gatsby obsesses over Daisy, whom he fell in love with before he left for service in World War I. And he plans to use his next-door neighbor Nick, Daisy's cousin, to arrange their rendezvous.
Mulligan is a decent fit as Gatsby's beloved aristocrat, perfectly capturing the misery of her marriage to Tom, but only showing her alluring lust for life in spurts. Edgerton, on the other hand, is a revelation as Tom, the story's pompous, ignorant and subtly slimy go-to villain.
Those who haven't read "The Great Gatsby" may find the film's low-key dialogue somewhat tiresome. They should keep in mind that this story focuses on a group of WASPs in the 1920s who went to Yale and Oxford. Their elitist conversations rarely grew intense because they wanted to appear to be proper gents and ladies.
Those who have read "The Great Gatsby" should keep in mind that this film adaptation is a product of its time, as were the others: a 1926 silent, a 1949 noir and a 1974 romance starring hunk-of-the-moment Robert Redford. The glitzy 3-D sequences, the color-blind casting and the infusion of modern pop and hip-hop all are contributing to a fresh take.
In a summer full of silly sequels and shoot 'em up blockbusters, "The Great Gatsby" shines like a bright green beacon. Keep an open mind and you'll see it.
Shea Conner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.
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