OK, old sports, Baz Luhrmann’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as produced by Jay-Z, and with Kanye West on the soundtrack, has already riled the purists, who are grumbling and railing and basically queuing up to say it sucks, it’s a travesty, nothing like the book, doesn’t even come close, but you know what? You can tell them all to go hang. This is fantastically enjoyable, and a blast. It is wild and rampant and thrilling. It’s the best film I’ve seen since the last best film I saw, whatever and whenever that was. So tell them to go hang plus, if you are in the mood, you may wish to add: ‘But has it stayed true to Fitzgerald’s vision of a Kanye West soundtrack?’ I think it has but, again, I may be on my own with this one.
It’s a long film, at two and a half hours, but it won’t seem like it, and for the first hour or so you may even feel as if you are on some kind of Great Gatsby theme-park ride at a Disneyland somewhere. I mean this in a good way. It’s 3D. The colours are so vivid it’s as if you’ve never properly seen green before. Phones actually jiggle when they ring. The text jumps out from the screen. The costume budget must have been out of this world. The camera swoops in and then out, breathlessly. And the parties? Jay Gatsby’s famous parties? The parties are all dazzlingly lavish spectacles with champagne corks a-popping and so densely populated every frame is like a Where’s Wally? of the Charleston-mad, liquor-mad, jazz-mad 1920s.
So it’s visually breathtaking, but the rest? Unlike the 1974, rather opaque version starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford, this does not dispense with Nick Carraway as narrator and framing device. Even if you only ever skim-read the novel at school, which is something you should say even if it isn’t true, just to rile everyone further, you’ll have understood Carraway is essential for providing insight into Gatsby’s mind and motivations. Here, Nick (Tobey Maguire) has taken residence in a mental asylum, where he broods over the summer of 1922, and puts his thoughts on paper — a memoir that will become The Gatsby until he takes a pen, and inserts Great between the words. Nothing in this film is especially subtle. I will give you that.
Anyway, Nick is an honest if naive young man who is trying to get a toehold in Wall Street when he rents a little house in West Egg, Long Island, across the bay from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brutish philanderer. The house is also in the shadow of the stupendous mansion owned by Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The whole of New York, more or less, truck up to his wildly extravagant weekend parties where the carousing goes on all night and if no one asks where all this money is coming from, it’s because no one much cares. Gatsby’s own entrance is delayed, in time-honoured dramatic fashion, for half an hour or so, and when the moment comes, old sports, it’s as if DiCaprio is Gatsby, in the same way Orson Welles was Citizen Kane. Previously, I’ve never much cared for DiCaprio. His little round face and little round mouth always make me think of Gomez from Charles Addams’s original cartoons of The Addams Family, and I want to pen a wispy moustache on him, but here he is so self-possessed and charismatic I not only believed in him, but felt I could watch him for ever as well.
Gatsby is, of course, intent on wooing back Daisy, his sweetheart from five years earlier. Everything he has done, including making a fortune, has been for her. He befriends Nick, and asks him to arrange a rendezvous. This happens in Nick’s living room, which Gatsby fills to the rafters with flowers and cake. It’s a superb scene. ‘Is it too much?’ he asks, as if he were asking about the film, too. And there are many more superb scenes, including one where, showing Daisy around his mansion, he takes his silk shirts from where they are stored on a balconette, and lets them flutter down on to the bed. It’s so beautiful I practically trembled with delight. And Ms Mulligan? Rather wonderful, too. Gorgeous, in her white floaty dresses, plus capable of an essential duality. She is the prize but, at the same time, she must always make you question if she’s a prize worth having.
It all works. It works as a love story, to the extent it is a love story, and it works as a commentary on the disintegration of the American dream and the carelessness of the rich. And although some critics are complaining about an absence of feeling, I was moved at the end by Gatsby, and his sincere and loyal heart. My only wish now, in fact, is that Jay-Z and Jay G would get together more often. The results are intoxicating, old sports. Intoxicating.