There is a shot about 40 minutes into Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby that is so astonishing, over-the-top, and dazzlingly insane that it feels like the logical culmination of every second leading up to it.
Budding bonds salesman Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has received an invitation from his neighbor, a preposterously wealthy and mysterious gentleman known as “Gatsby,” to attend a party at his enormous, Cinderella Castle-like home. Since his arrival in New York, Carraway has been told stories upon stories about the mysterious nature of this Great Gatsby. Being a curious fellow, he naturally decides to take up the invitation. As Carraway walks through the front doors of Gatsby’s palace, he’s hastily dragged by a mob of ecstatic partygoers into an extravagant amusement park of a party wherein dancers dance as if their bodies were on fire, confetti falls like rain from the sky, and hoards of people, dressed in their best 1920s attire, drunkenly, and rather hilariously, fall over themselves as they laugh, scream, fight, and even hook up, all in plain sight! As the thumping hip-hop & jazz fueled soundtrack, complete with blaring trumpets and dueling pianos, set up a carnival-like atmosphere… the stage is set for the big moment!
Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” kicks in and begins its steady rise to its crescendo. Carraway, now drunk and high on the ecstasy of decadence, is randomly asked by a man whose face remains obscured, if he’s having a good time. Carraway tells him that he indeed is, even if he finds it unusual that Mr. Gatsby is nowhere to be found. Suddenly, the man, still off-camera, exclaims in an oddly calm and reassuring tone, “Why, old sport, I’m Gatsby!” Taken aback by this announcement, Carraway swiftly turns to catch a glimpse of the man. And then… right then… just as the Gershwin hits its peak, and the fireworks go off, we finally get the money shot: It’s the half-smiling, half-smirking face of Leonardo DiCaprio, in all his sun-baked glory, toasting a glass of champagne at us as the fireworks bathe him in an orgasmic explosion of lights, stars and colors.
This shot, a perfect marriage of sound, visuals, performance and editing, is such an overwhelming moment of razzle dazzle, cotton candy spectacle that I didn’t know whether to laugh, applaud or shake my head in disbelief. It’s also the one moment that captures everything that is good and bad about this adaptation.
Chief among the good, along with the Catherine Martin’s luscious production design and costumes, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s rich, layered performance as Gatsby. He embodies Jay’s façade of confidence, his aura of mystique, his showmanship, his gross insecurity, his hopeless eagerness to please, his delusional mindset, and most of all, his good heart. He made me care for the guy even if I knew before hand what cards fate would be dealing him. It’s a performance that seals the deal that DiCaprio is a megastar worthy of the hype leading up to that shot.
As for the wrong – I can only point to Luhrmann. His adeptness for showmanship and excess may have pegged him as the best filmmaker to bring this roaring, shallow, materialistic world to fruition but that gift also makes him the absolute worst! As much as I love Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, the man doesn’t have a single subtle cell in his creative cranium. Although the cacophony of colors and his trademark silliness didn’t bother me the way it has some of my colleagues, his sins here are two-fold: Firstly, he spends far too much time on how the film looks and sounds rather than what it’s supposed to mean. The underlying themes of the story – the failure of the American dream, the futile pursuit of wealth as a means to acquire happiness, is all lost in translation. Finally, Luhrmann and frequent screenwriting partner Craig Pearce are so slavishly faithful to the novel’s narrative that they have nothing original to present, other than the pretty wallpapers and threads. It’s a copy-and-paste job with confetti. The end result is film befitting the character of Daisy – beautiful, superficial and foolish.