In the decade of jazz, at the conclusion of the First World War, when booze was as inexhaustible as money, America roared into sudden primacy as all the major world powers tilted off their axes. There upon the world stage, all light and warm sensibility beaming down, the lone figure of the United States danced and jigged in celebration.

The Great Gatsby

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rave 20 and Quality 16

Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” — based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald — mirrors the triumphant, if not over-the-top, grace of America in the roaring ’20s. As the narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, “Spiderman”) describes, “the parties were bigger, the cities were taller and the liquor was cheaper.” More could be enjoyed at less expense. Extravagance was just a way of life. Luhrmann succeeds in delivering a colorful, explosive retelling of American grandeur in the 1920s.

But not all American hearts sang in jubilation. Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, “Inception”) is an enormously wealthy, mysterious resident of West Egg. Carraway, who moves into the ramshackle house next door, gradually makes his acquaintance and learns of the tragic love affair between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, “Drive”), who is Carraway’s cousin. Though Daisy is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton, “Zero Dark Thirty”) and lives in old-money East Egg across the bay, Gatsby is determined to recreate the love they shared before he went to war. Every night he wanders to the end of his dock, stretches out his arms in undaunted hope and reaches toward the green light emanating from Daisy’s dock across the water.

Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” explores the darker nature of the times — the rivalries between old and new money, the ever-expanding discrepancy between rich and poor, the tumultuous and corrosive bonds of love among the wealthy — and also of Jay Gatsby himself. Captivated by his undying hope to regain Daisy’s love, Gatsby is driven to corruption, greed and, in the midst of a whirlwind affair, even madness.

But with the costumes, set designs, acting and with Jay-Z’s modern score, the film certainly pushes the boundaries of extravagance. Jewels bedazzle each shot; each character’s appearance is almost too vibrant and pristine and the first third of the movie is seemingly dedicated to revealing the extent of the filmmaker’s party-coordinating skill. In fact, when Carraway reflects on his partying experience, he feels it necessary to ask “What’s it all for?” as though the point of the excess is to have no point at all.

For all the film’s shortcomings, however, credit must be given to Luhrmann, who does a phenomenal job of aligning the script with the original text. The film begins and ends with the green light — the symbolic turning away of old fortunes and past loves. Added emphasis is placed on Gatsby’s origin, as he embodies the ideal of the American Dream — a central theme of the novel. Detail is even placed on the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that lie quiet in the muck, watching over the sins and successes of each character.

On the gate of Gatsby’s mansion, in wrought-iron lettering, there is a Latin inscription: Ad finis fidelis. Faithful to the end. As the story goes on and we see that Gatsby would sacrifice anything for his dream, we sympathize completely. Even Nick Carraway, a careful observer of Gatsby’s hope, remains loyal to his ambition of retelling the story. And as Carraway reads the last few lines, we understand that we, too, by no fault of our own, are captive to the dream that calls us. So we beat on toward the ruddy shore, all light and sensation suspended, souls forever magnetized to our own green light awaiting us.

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