Take F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, and near-perfect novel, and hand it over to Baz Luhrmann and what you get is a 3D burlesque-meets-Bollywood-meets-Moulin-Rouge extravaganza.
Its 1920s New York – Wall Street is up, prohibition is in force, therefore bootlegging is soaring; and the rich are divided into new and old money. The frocks are fancy, the parties fancier! This is the Jazz Age.
In this world Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) stands lonely at the end of his pier staring at a green light flashing across the harbour even as a party rages within his mansion. His neighbour, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a bonds tradesman, watches this man, fascinated. And then one day Nick receives a formal invitation to one of Gatsby’s legendary parties. He soon discovers that Gatsby needs Nick to reunite him with his lost love, Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carrie Mulligan). Daisy is married to old money, but her marriage to Tom Buchanan appears unhappy (Joel Edgerton).
Turns out Gatsby built a life on lies in order to create a world perfect for his lost love Daisy. His money comes from some shady dealings with bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim, played by Amitabh Bachchan in an energetic, brief but impactful cameo.
The film begins with Nick, now “morbidly alcoholic” recounting the story of Gatsby, Daisy and those hedonistic days to his counselor in a sanatorium. He seems to be haunted by the same green light that once hypnotized Gatsby; the green light that symbolized hope, possibility, love regained, a past forgotten and a future rewritten.
Luhrmann, unfortunately, forsakes the simplicity of Fitzgerald’s love story for excess and extravaganza. Size is what matters here. He did it in Australia, and it worked against the film. Luhrmann’s leaning on computer graphics, particularly in the first hour, is one of the irritations of this film too.
DiCaprio makes Gatsby his own – as the volatile, obsessed lover and self-made millionaire. Tobey Maguire fumbles and makes Nick appear boring and spineless – an accessory, a mute and fickle observer even as events take a tragic turn. Mulligan looks vulnerable and enchanting, and sinks her teeth into an iconic part, which is sketchily written for this film, as best she can.
Its not a patch on the book, but it is unarguably Luhrmann’s vision and for that one must give him marks. It’s still a far cry from his brilliant adaptation of Romeo+Juliet though.
Having said that, when Nick recites this final passage from the novel, I confess I had goose bumps. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . And one fine morning –“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”