Hollywood is aflutter as the master of camp's predicted failure has nudged Iron Man 3 off the top spot with this fourth take on the theme of doomed, star-crossed lovers.
Even I was taken aback walking into the early afternoon preview to discover it was packed and that the next screening had sold out.
This marks an imperfect but pleasant return to form for Baz Luhrmann after the double disappointment of Moulin Rouge and the ambitious epic flop Australia. Both were handsomely mounted with occasionally stirring moments but the raw passion, both emotional and cinematic, that burst from the screen in Strictly Ballroom and Romeo and Juliet was absent.
In Gatsby, Luhrmann has found yet another character and vehicle for his pet subject material but has now combined the passion and the epic into a coherent and, for a fair portion of the running time, a reasonably engrossing narrative.
Perhaps it’s no surprise; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of doomed love is regarded as one of the finest novels of the 20th century, still on high schools syllabuses everywhere.
There also seems to be an affectionate nostalgia for the way Luhrmann both revealed and propelled Di Caprio to stardom in Romeo and Juliet. I still remember the collective squeals for his first appearance in what is still the best screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic.
Here the same is achieved despite Di Caprio's now older and very familiar face. His mysterious and elusive Gatsby is talked about but never seen for the first half hour, but when finally revealed by a clever ‘misdirect’, the cinema roared with approval and laughter and I sensed the hunger for a repeat of the thrill that Luhrmann’s Romeo gave us all those years ago.
Set in prohibition times in and around the New York environs, this story is narrated and observed by Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a struggling writer and bonds salesman swiftly sucked into Gatsby’s fantastical world by virtue of living next door to his palatial mansion.
Invited to attend one of his many lavish and decadent parties, he’s unaware initially that his enigmatic host is obsessed with his cousin Daisy whose home lies within view across the bay.
Becoming his only true friend by virtue of being impassively neutral to all people, Carroway discovers that Gatsby’s entire raison d’être is to seduce the love of his life back into his fold, no expense spared.
But he’s unaware money can’t buy you love and since Daisy married during his absence in the Great War, his now lavish and clumsy efforts as a man of corruptly gained means can only lead to one thing – tragedy.
This rich trifle of a film takes a while to get going. The characters and story slowly emerge from heavy-handed exposition to describe the lay of the land and explore the mystery of Gatsby himself.
But once he’s revealed, it all takes off and for a good hour is quite thrilling as Luhrmann gives us what he’s best at: gaudiness, glitter and gold all boldly overstated, which is of course who Gatsby is, too.
The camera glides over rooftops, lakes, New York, and hurtles us toward the next scene. Synchronised waiters flutter around dinner tables and open windows with flowing drapes. Huge glitter, champagne and ribbon-infested parties dazzle as the background decadence mirrors the inner emptiness of our lonely protagonists.
It all agreeably washes over the eye and the senses. It’s something velvety to drown and revel in, elegant and hypnotic. I could watch those costumes, flower arrangements and rictus grins all day.
But all superficial happiness must come to an end and the last act is a more sober and theatrical affair as Gatsby and Daisy’s philandering husband go head-to-head for her loyalty and love. The passions and rage that have been simmering under tuxedo skins finally surface. And boy can Di Caprio do rage.
Like Gatsby himself, the film is insubstantial, incomplete and unwholesome but beautifully executed and it’s a very guilty pleasure to have his company while it lasts.