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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 23. The Great Gatsby

Nominations: Costume Design, Production Design

Tobey Maguire (L) and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Great Gatsby'
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Everyone knows F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – whether you were forced to vivisect its deeper meaning in your high school English class or have seen the 1974 film adaptation with Robert Redford or maybe just know about it through pop-culture osmosis, you probably know it. But just in case you don’t know: it is the tale of a wealthy man living in sprawl of 1920’s opulence and his longing to attain the woman he blindly loves and all of the obstacles that befall him despite his good intentions, an allegory about the destructiveness of greed and the degradation of the purity of the American dream; it’s one of the most important books of the English language, with its graceful wordsmithery and poignant themes. And now, for all those who are weary of spark notes and Jack Clayton’s somnambulant movie, you can skip over the written masterwork and watch writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s spangled and bejeweled cinematic version of great American tragedy.

In Luhrmann’s version, the eponymous hero is played by Leonardo DiCaprio who embodies the elusive idealism depicted in the novel except that he seems too handsome to be perfect in the role – DiCaprio captures Gatsby as that man who has “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance” with ease. His Gatsby wears the façade of confidence well save for its transparency; DiCaprio is as lovely as he is heartbreaking. The other casting choices of the film, though they are inspired choices, fall in a bit of a messy heap around their leading man. Carey Mulligan plays Daisy with sincerity, Gatsby’s lady love, except that she never really has anything to do and her baby doll looks are so overwhelmed by the costume and makeup choices for her character that her presence on screen becomes annoying very fast. Tobey Maguire, real-life long time friend of co-star DiCaprio, plays narrator Nick Carraway, who should be the beating heart of the story except that his average-joe qualities get in the way of his being interesting. The only character who looks as though he sprang from the pages of the book is Joel Edgerton’s brutish Tom Buchannan, a sporty elitist who is both rough and sympathetic.

For all of the things Luhrmann gets wrong, there are risks that pay off. For instance, there’s lots of debate about the film’s soundtrack, whether the mixing of modern music with a story about the roaring twenties is appropriate or just a cheap gimmick. I personally find it the pitch perfect segue between eras ninety years apart – the culture of hip-hop and its penchant for luxury and excess mirrors Fitzgerald’s concept of staggering decadence. The visual pomp and circumstance that made Luhrmann famous with past hits Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! Finds a bright and comfy front-row seat in the film. The director turns the party sequences into dizzying wonderlands of sparkle and fabulousness that often wax surreal – its amazing and crazy to watch it all; Fitzgerald would have chuckled at the symbolism of mocking excess by making it so insanely excessive. Catherine Martin, the magician behind the Oscar-winning Costume Design and Production Design for Moulin Rouge!, is up for the same categories this year for Gatsby. Despite the gorgeous and imaginative takes of twenties fashion, Martin will probably lose the Costume trophy to the gussied outfits of American Hustle, but I wouldn’t write her off for the Production Design win – whether you loved or hated or were ambivalent towards The Great Gatsby, you have to admit that she threw one hell of a party.