As bold and brassy as an adaptation ever was, director Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" lights up F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of Jazz Age excess and "Lost Generation" self-invention with sparkling visuals, sweeping grandeur and a dead-perfect cast.
Luhrmann applies the tricks that made "Moulin Rouge" and his rock 'n' roll "Romeo + Juliet" so memorable an always-moving camera, lush sets and costumes, and a mixtape soundtrack that pays no attention to period authenticity to a kaleidoscopic melodrama. Those tricks show that Luhrmann and Jay Gatsby, a character obsessed with appearances, are in fact soulmates separated by decades but unified with a shared love for the opulent.
Gatsby is such a powerful character that Luhrmann wisely postpones his entrance to set the stage. He's talked about a lot, first by the young writer and rookie bond trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who in the early 1920s moves into a cottage in Long Island's West Egg across the harbor from the old money of East Egg, where Nick's cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) endures a less-than-happy marriage with the wealthy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Daisy hears the name Gatsby and is immediately fascinated.
Gatsby, we learn, has become the toast of Manhattan because of his lavish weekend parties in West Egg. Everyone who's anyone is there, but few have seen Gatsby himself. Nick becomes one of those few which is when Luhrmann opens the curtain and at last reveals Gatsby, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio with his million-dollar smile and simmering intensity.
With Nick as narrator, Luhrmann draws us deep into Gatsby's world, contrasting the gaudy excess of his West Egg parties with the more sedate riches of the Buchanans over in East Egg. Between the two, and on the road to glitzy Manhattan, is the poor part of town, where Tom's mechanic George Wilson (Jason Clarke) and George's wife and Tom's mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) live.
Luhrmann matches the movement of Fitzgerald's characters, rushing toward their ambition on a mad carousel, with filmmaking action of his own. With writing partner Craig Pearce, Luhrmann keeps the bustle of Gatsby's party scene and Manhattan nightlife flowing like champagne. Intriguing characters like the Buchanans' golf-pro friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) or Gatsby's shady benefactor Meyer Wolfsheim (Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan) whisk quickly but memorably through the story. The film is propelled by a soundtrack (produced by Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter) that freely mixes modern rap and alt-rock edge (including Jack White's soulful cover of U2's "Love Is Blindness") with jazz standards.
The casting is spot-on. DiCaprio (like Robert Redford in the slow-as-syrup 1974 version) has that quicksilver combination of surface charm and underlying drive that defines Gatsby. Mulligan plays Daisy's delicacy and her obliviousness with grace. And Maguire takes on the thankless role of Nick, who's both wide-eyed witness to and sullen participant in Gatsby's rise and fall, with gravitas and even an edge of humor.
Luhrmann's greatest trick in "The Great Gatsby" is using the romantic plot will Daisy choose Jay or Tom as camouflage to get across Fitzgerald's withering and timely portrait of a society dancing to the edge of disaster. The party, fueled by bootleg liquor and speeding toward an economic reckoning, couldn't last forever, then or now.
'The Great Gatsby'
A note-perfect cast and director Baz Luhrmann's flashy style meld for an exuberant adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, May 10.
Rating • PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.
Running time • 143 minutes.