Director Baz Luhrmann couldn't have been a better choice to helm a story drenched in opulence and glamour. The look of the movie is genuinely stunning, with Gatsby's outrageous parties taking the cake in terms of visual brilliance. If this movie does make an Oscar bid, the costuming department should certainly win. The suits and dresses worn by the cast are top notch, and are easily the best thing in the movie as far as capturing the look and feel of the roaring twenties. There are also plenty of cool visual bits (my favorite being a sequence where we see into the multiple windows of a New York apartment building) that keep the look of the film fresh and moving, without seeming overly gimmicky or tacky. As far as production design goes, The Great Gatsby scores high in every department.
But, props and costumes aren't the only things doing great stuff. Leonardo DiCaprio infuses a wonderful bit of boyish charm into the figure of Jay Gatsby, and makes him even a bit more relatable then his ink and paper counterpart. DiCaprio also gets to show off some of his comic chops, and it makes me wonder why he hasn't tried his hand at a comedy role, since his anxiety about meeting Daisy is quite an amusing number in the film. Carey Mulligan as Daisy manages to capture the airy quality of the character, and her eyes do reflect an unfortunate sadness that is vital to her character. However, Joel Edgerton as her husband, Tom, may very well be the star of the show. He's a deliciously decadent villain, and even though you are given no reason to like him, there are a few key moments where he actually manages to ring some sympathy out of you. It's an almost impossible feat to achieve, but somehow Edgerton does it. Isla Fisher (as Tom's mistress, Myrtle) doesn't get quite enough screen-time for us to fully bond with her, but her few bits are very good, and she does give her character's eventual fate enough weight to make her appearance justified.
However, the big coin-toss here is Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Saddled with being the narrator of the picture, his performance is pigeon-holed into being an observer of events, leaving little for him to offer. It's also disappointing since he is presented as our main character in the first third of the film, but once Gatsby's relation to Daisy comes into play, Maguire is forced to sit on the sidelines for the majority of the second act. This is more of a writing and pacing issue then a performance one, since Maguire isn't given much to do. His few bits of depression and anger are welcome diversions from his lackadaisical attitude as an observer. I feel like there was a missed opportunity at focusing solely on Nick and seeing things through his point of view. While the film does adhere fairly strictly to that, it doesn't involve Nick as much as it needs to in order to keep him interesting. Maguire's voice-over in of itself does get the job done, but it's not the most riveting material.
I'm certain the big conversation piece of this movie will be the use of contemporary music, and it's something that bears discussion, but doesn't work in the big scheme of things. Actually, it's almost uniformly hit-and-miss affairs. One of the really good applications is when we first visit Gatsby's house for a party, and the opening notes of Bach's Toccata and Fugue begin to play, only to slip into a remixed party version. That's one of the few (and maybe only) successful attempts at utilizing modern music styles to set a tone. For the most part, they only serve to pull you out of the era in question. On paper, the idea of using contemporary music to reflect the similarities of party atmosphere sounds new and exciting, and would be a way to make the story of The Great Gatsby click with a younger generation. In execution, it mostly turns meaningful sequences into over-the-top music video segments. It's too bad, because there are other moments where the music is spot on. The first time we see Gatsby is during an enormous fireworks show set to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and that couldn't be more apropos. I feel that the thing to do would've been to appropriate period music and have artists do cover versions of those songs, so that the music would sound modern but would actually be rooted in the era the story takes place.
As a movie, The Great Gatsby is a lot like someone dumping a bucket of glittery gold paint on the floor and then sprinkling diamonds into the puddle: it's a horrible mess, but it's certainly gorgeous to look at. With such a strong visual sense, it's impossible to completely write the movie off. The performances are all solid (if sometimes poorly written) and the story does manage to shed it's literary skin and become something that seems almost inherently cinematic. If only the musical direction and the script were tighter, The Great Gatsby would be a bonafide classic. Instead, it happens to be a satisfactory alternative to the wealth of genre fare we have in store for this summer at the movies.