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The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann infuses the Fitzgerald classic with lots of life but little soul

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★★★ (out of 5 stars)          

How do you film the best novel of the 20th century? The answer is, of course, that you can’t, as three previous cinematic versions of The Great Gatsby have shown. Yet director Baz Luhrmann, with his provocative new take on the classic, deserves some credit for trying a new, if slightly misguided, approach and for delivering his own unique brand of grand entertainment instead of the spectacular disaster fans of the book feared.

            The plot hardly bears repeating. If you’re like me, you discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in high school and were immediately transfixed. Perhaps you imagined yourself as the mysterious Jay Gatsby, a man who challenged himself – and inexorably changed himself – to achieve his ultimate romantic dream. Maybe you even took a greater mental leap and cast your real-life love as the ethereal, unattainable Daisy. But just in case you didn’t obsess over the story as much as I, you may need some Cliffs Notes.

            It’s the jazz-infused summer of 1922, and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a poor stockbroker, is new to West Egg, a fashionable village on Long Island, New York. He has rented a small house across the bay from old-money East Egg, home to his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton).           Nick soon meets his next-door neighbor, Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a millionaire bachelor of dubious background who sole purpose, it seems, is to throw lavish parties for the Empire State’s high society. What Nick doesn’t know at first is that Gatsby has invented this life not for himself but to attract Daisy, his lost love from before the war – the one who wouldn’t wait for him, the one who got away.

            In a tragically ironic twist – which Luhrmann only slightly captures – Gatsby hates the parties, which are thrown for the sole purpose of drawing Daisy. And until that day comes, Gatsby waits patiently on his side of the water, staring across the sound to Daisy’s, transfixed by the “green light at the end of her dock,” which, since the book’s publication in 1925, has become a metaphor for something magical and inspirational, yet just out of reach.

            Nick is the book’s narrator, and Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay, fully embraces that construct, expanding it to make Nick not just the verbal storyteller but the writer as well. That allows Luhrmann to emphasize the language of the novel, with the actual words sometimes springing off the screen in 3-D. That’s an improvement over the famous 1974 film directed by Jack Clayton and starting Robert Redford, which trampled on the language at times. Yet the framing device of placing Nick in a Midwest sanitarium following his departure from New York, writing the story as therapy following a mental collapse, is unnecessarily distracting.

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