The story many know and love has been tweaked a little bit here so as to frame things as Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) writings from some asylum for possible alcoholism. While this doesn’t change the importance of Gatsby and the underlying motifs of the work, it is a disappointment to fans of the novel. The rest of the movie follows Fitzgerald’s plot quite accurately, describing Carraway’s first interactions with the rich and elusive Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the eventual fleshing out of Gatsby’s character. The body of the film surrounds Jay Gatsby and his longings to be with the beautiful Daisy (Carey Mulligan) once again. His desperate longing is personified in the green light at the end of her dock across the bay in East Egg, once of the many symbols successfully converted in this adaptation. Luhrmann is quite happy to sweep across Manhasset Bay many times to drive home the divide between Gatsby and Daisy.
The supporting roles filled by Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton as her cheating and partying husband. Tom Buchanan knows Carraway from school, and Daisy is Carraway’s cousin. Through interactions with their family Nick comes to know of this Gatsby figure he will later become close to. Carey Mulligan has always committed to roles with dedication, and her stint as Daisy is no different here. She plays the part with a calm and almost cold sensibility, symbolizing both the rich boy’s trophy wife and Gatsby’s long-lost over all at once.
Perhaps the largest contribution to the Gatsby legacy this film provides (aside from DiCaprio’s performance) is the living and breathing world of greater New York brought to life here. One thing the film certainly captures well is the massive scale of Gatsby’s yellow car and the speed of it as it races through the landfills and bridges that separate West Egg from Manhattan. The actors swim through collages of color as they move swiftly through the surreal city. Luhrmann also does a strong job of capturing the Valley of Ashes and the all-seeing eyes of Dr. Eckleburg atop that faded billboard. As Fitzgerald’s magnus opus, The Great Gatsby remains a truly great work of American literature that can never be fully adapted with the same spirit as the novel. That being said, this film still succeeds on its own, and is in all likelihood the best attempt at a retelling yet.