It’s remarkable how, when you get Tobey Maguire to read the immortal opening lines of The Great Gatsby, it sounds like an eloquent remake of Spider-Man. We may also be in New York, but there’s no futuristic crime-fighting here as we’re borne back ceaselessly into the past in the latest cinematic telling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel.

It’s tale of a nouveau riche socialite grasping at the American Dream and trying to win back his married, former lover Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) through the hollow materialism of 1920s New York. Adapted to film on several occasions since the novel’s release in 1925, perhaps most famously starring Robert Redford in the eponymous lead role in ’74, the titular reins are now passed to Leonardo DiCaprio in the remake with probably the most pre-release fuss made of it. Subsequently, there’s a lot more riding on this one to capture the decadence of the Jazz Age. And it does so with aplomb.

The original book is one woven with symbology, and it isn’t lost on director Baz Luhrmann and Simon Duggan, whose cinematography is suitably overwhelming, bordering on nauseating when portraying the extravagant extremities of post-WWI America – sometimes to the point that it overshadows the substance. Gatsby’s car is conspicuously yellow, a testament to his ostentation and the indirect cause of his fate. It tears through the barren wasteland of the working class, the Valley of Ashes, a scene painted grey in stark contrast with the lavish world of the mirthless. Yes, there’s some method within the glitzy madness, but the main character’s party is a worthy spectacle on face value alone.

Cary Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan.

Soundtrack-wise, it walks bit of a musical tightrope. Inclusion of genres that pre-date the time are often tacky and anachronistic; there was no hip-hop then, making one of its most successful sons Jay-Z an odd choice for executive sound producer. Thankfully, it’s used with enough nuances to suit the claustrophobic excesses of prohibition era speakeasies and sweltering tensions of personal lives. Promotional single ‘Young and Beautiful’ by Lana Del Rey is a slice of the songstress’ trademark lyrically dark, emotionally heavy balladry, and catches some degree of underlying humanity in the New York scene; Gatsby’s pain and Daisy’s ultimate indifference, traits that the visual medium occasionally fails to fully capture.

On that note, it is fair to say theatrics outweigh soul a lot of the time, but that’s hardly ironic for a story of a time when materialism and class overruled the human heart, is it? Perhaps it’s a directional inadequacy, but prioritising indulgence in this particular film could be, every bit as much, a creative, observant quirk. That said, some aspects are left out of focus. Daisy’s daughter, an important object of her attachment and Gatsby’s detachment to reality, is overlooked to the point one could be forgiven for questioning why the two don’t indeed elope. The main cast themselves, while aesthetically spot-on and, for the most part, ensnaring, do sometimes fall a little flat over the two hours. DiCaprio’s polished, posh mannerisms eventually grate, salvaged by his eruption at the movie’s crescendo, while Maguire (as narrator Nick Carraway) mainly sticks to his likeable but bumbling unlikely hero persona, now recounting the tale from a sanatorium despite never really showing such an extent of character development behind recitals of the novel’s most memorable lines. Mulligan is as oblivious and cutesy as she needs to be, while Joel Edgerton (playing husband Tom) couldn’t be more unlikeable in the best possible way. New kid on the block Elizabeth Debicki also pulls off the overtly flirtatious Jordan Baker with sass and charm.

The Great Gatsby Cast

L-R: Debicki, Maguire, DiCaprio, Edgerton, Isla Fisher (as Myrtle Wilson)

Flawed as it may be, that’s essentially the essence of the tale; corruption, segregation and hollowness masquerading as success and peacetime happiness. The film encapsulates this with overblown gusto, depicting its subject matter in a very palpable way, making for fairly well-adapted, ably-executed, frivolous fun.

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