History affords us the benefit of looking past an era's ugly indiscretions and focusing on the higher points of a time gone by. The time period is then remembered with fond nostalgia rather than regret, which is a salient point to mention when discussing director Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," as he features this preferential hindsight in his glossy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famed 1925 novel. However, this alone is not enough to make the movie a success.
The year is 1922, and the humble, naïve Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is our narrator. A bond salesman in New York City, Nick lives on Long Island next door to the sprawling mansion of the ominous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Jay's intentions for Nick are obvious: He wants to get close to Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), whom Jay once loved but hasn't seen in five years. Daisy is now married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), a philandering millionaire whose own affair with crazy golddigger Myrtle (Isla Fisher) is common knowledge.
The production design, costumes and brash visual style (side note: look away when you see a toy airplane, as the camera is about to plummet to the ground and give you vertigo, especially if you see it in 3D) all offer a bright, gaudy sheen of Roaring '20s opulence. What Luhrmann intended was to capture the glee of affluence in a decade of overindulgence, highlighted by Jay's overpopulated parties to which everyone who's anyone is invited, but few even knew who he was. In this regard, mission accomplished.
The pacing, however, is another issue. At 143 minutes, it's easily 20 minutes too long, and it's also a flaw to have the boring Nick tell the story. He's not a compelling character, his innocence offers little perspective of value, and Maguire is forced to play down Nick's charisma because he knows the focus is on Daisy, Tom and Jay. The fact that Nick is the narrator in the book is irrelevant: The movie either works on its own terms or it doesn't, and in this case it doesn't.
This is a shame, too, because lost in the narrative ennui are fine performances from Edgerton, Mulligan and especially DiCaprio. Jay is a complicated self-made man shrouded in mystery. We often don't know what to believe about him, but we do always like him. DiCaprio plays him as a dreamer, idealist and hopeless romantic, thereby showcasing positive features of a man whom we also know is a bit of a swindler. Jay is in many ways the epitome of the lavish, hedonistic 1920s: glistening and naughty on the outside, gravely flawed on the inside.
As he did in "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann includes covers of modern pop music hits, though in this case, the anachronisms don't add much flair to the proceedings. Ironically, the most memorable musical sequence comes with the culmination of the first party, as George Gershwin's 1924 composition "Rhapsody in Blue" accompanies a poolside fireworks celebration on a perfect summer evening in The Hamptons. The energy, editing and emotion of the moment are palpable and genuine, and "The Great Gatsby" would've benefitted from more of the same. Unfortunately, the flaws of the film render the final verdict unkind.