Let me start out by saying this was my first experience with Gatsby in any way, shape, or form. I never read the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald book, never saw Robert Redford play the iconic character or any other movie version. I didn't even have any idea what the plot was. I came into this film knowing that there was a mysterious guy named Gatsby, and apparently he's a big deal. That was about it. This larger than life portrayal of the classic story was a great way to get immersed in the world of The Great Gatsby.
Baz Luhrmann creates a larger than life setting for this simple story of love, loss, and the pursuit of happiness. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) starts the movie recalling a summer that forever changed his life; his summer with Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). We see everything through Carraway's eyes from the larger than life status of Gatsby to the terrible unhappiness of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) at the hands of her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). It soon is revealed that Gatsby's history with Daisy haunts him in a way that only she can satisfy his pursuit of happiness.
This is Luhrmann's fifth feature film, however only the second one I have seen after Moulin Rouge!. I can see many similarities between these two films. Both films have this great grand setting to tell what turns out to be a very simple human story. In Gatsby, the world of 1920's New York becomes the larger than life city it truly was in the Roaring 20's. The parties were outrageous, the rich got richer, and the world was in an environment of excess. The private yet legendarily popular persona of Gatsby only becomes more vivid and real the bigger the world around him gets. Gatsby can exist in that world. However, as you discover more about Gatsby and Daisy, you realize that through this grandiose world the plot is very simple and human. The scale of the film I think makes the story more interesting when it strips back all its layers so you can see the heart at the center of it all. The one complaint I have in Luhrmann's execution is the use of the modern music in the 1920's setting. It is just distracting to hear Jay-Z blaring through the speakers as everything around screams 100 years earlier. Now the music is used so sparingly and the right times as to not kill the story, but it is still distracting when it does happen.
After finally being exposed to this iconic story and the iconic titular character, I could not see anyone better suited to play Gatsby than Leo. He is Gatsby in every way; the mystery, the glamour, the wounded, the passionate. I can't think of another actor that could have done this role so much justice. The rest of the cast was in top form as well in characters perfect for them, especially Mulligan and Edgerton. If there was one character that didn't quite work, it was Tobey Maguire's Carraway. Tobey Maguire is such a weird actor that doesn't seem to fit perfectly in any role besides Peter Parker (and that is debatable). This role was no exception for him, but it was about as good as Maguire can be. It seemed to be very similar to his role in The Cider House Rules where he was in the center of a story that was never really about him. He becomes a main character whose role is to be the passive observer. Because I had recognized this connection that he had played this role before, his performance didn't bother me quite as much as it may have bothered others.
Above all else, this brilliant story shone through and proved why it has become such an iconic plot. The story is fascinating as it tells of a man trying to recapture a moment in time. This story could have been told in a much more Todd-friendly fashion by only involving four actors and taking place in a single room over the 90 minute movie. However, the scope and scale adds so much to the story as it allows Gatsby to be such a public celebrity yet a private mystery. This dichotomy allows Gatsby to be one of the most fascinating and iconic characters of all time, and thanks to Luhrmann and DiCaprio, the legend of Gatsby lives on for a new generation.