Frankly, I was dreading Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but I wouldn’t have anticipated that this master of gaudy excess had a genuine desire to do justice to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. It’s the struggle between the filmmaker’s natural instincts and his better self that makes the results so wildly inconsistent.
The movie bears all of Luhrmann’s trademarks, along with a panorama of patently artificial CGI landscapes, the likes of which he couldn’t execute when he made Moulin Rouge a decade ago. What’s more, they are rendered in 3-D, a needless appurtenance that left me with a headache. The ultimate Luhrmann sequence, a gargantuan party in Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, provides an excuse for scores of elaborately costumed dancers, performers and extras to make whoopee to a blend of 1920s music and hip-hop numbers by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter (who also receives credit as one of the movie’s executive producers). As in Moulin Rouge, it seems a shame to expend so much effort when the camera never settles on any one aspect of the picture long enough for us to absorb it. Oddly enough, I didn’t mind the hip-hop tracks, as they seemed to capture the reckless energy of the roaring ‘20s; it’s the rapid-fire editing that wore me out, all the more so in 3-D.
But when the movie gets down to business, it takes on a completely different tone. In fact, as Gatsby acolyte Nick Carraway (nicely played by Tobey Maguire) begins his narration, words form on the screen in an effort to salute the beauty of Fitzgerald’s language.
Most of the characters are well cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is ideal as the enigmatically appealing, self-invented Jay Gatsby, with Carey Mulligan as the woman of his dreams who gave up on her own ideals long ago. Joel Edgerton is appropriately harsh as her bumptious husband, Tom Buchanan, while Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke have little to do but look the parts as the ill-fated Myrtle and George Wilson. Likewise, newcomer Elizabeth Debicki fills the visual description of a high-living 1920s celebrity like Jordan Baker. I can’t say the same for celebrated Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan, who’s an odd choice to play the Jewish wheeler-dealer Meyer Wolfsheim.
The weight of the drama falls on DiCaprio and Maguire, and they come through splendidly. It’s the movie itself that seems to run out of gas at some point, especially as Luhrmann drives home symbolic moments with the subtlety of an ambulance siren. (If I saw one more closeup of the oculist’s billboard peering ominously over George Wilson's garage and its working-class neighborhood, I was going to scream.)
How, then, to sum up this fourth big-screen rendering of The Great Gatsby? I would call it a mixed bag. It’s better than the lumpy 1949 version with Alan Ladd, and not as bland as the 1974 production with Robert Redford, which was scripted by Francis Ford Coppola. (We can’t discuss the most tantalizing version, made in 1926 when the novel was new; there are no known copies of the film extant.) It certainly isn’t dull, and it has many virtues. But in the end, no filmmaker has been able to capture the elusive qualities that have made the book an enduring masterpiece. Baz Luhrmann and his collaborators (including screenwriter Craig Pearce and the director’s wife Catherine Martin, who designed both the sets and costumes) have painted a colorful canvas with enough incidents, attractive people, and lively music to hold an audience’s attention. But it’s no match for the novel, which creates a mystique all its own and dazzles the reader with its matchlessly graceful writing. That’s something that film, for all its qualities, cannot duplicate.