The prospect of unapologetically over-the-top director Baz Luhrmann taking on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, seems counterintuitive. After all, “The Great Gatsby” is a work of exquisite subtlety and economy of prose. At 180 pages, it is almost impossibly concise.
No matter. Mr. Luhrmann still found a way to adapt it into a bloated, 144-minute 3D spectacle, but no one will ever accuse him of a lack of commitment. The film is so hectic and fantastical at times as to make Cirque du Soleil seem like a Harold Pinter play.
And yet there are moments in this “Gatsby” that truly are great. One only wishes there were more of them.
At the center is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, whom Luhrmann introduces on screen in spectacular fashion. DiCaprio flashes Gatsby’s famous smile, with its “quality of eternal reassurance,” and the entrance is worthy of the character as well as the movie star. DiCaprio gives his best performance since “The Departed,” and is unquestionably one of the highlights of the film.
Less convincing is Carey Mulligan as the wispy and shallow Daisy Buchanan. At times she seems unsure what to do with Daisy’s deceptive innocence. Unfortunately, neither she nor the screenplay gives us enough to justify Gatsby’s eternal and boundless love for her.
Tobey Maguire somehow manages to seem too old and too young to play Nick Carraway. Luhrmann does not help things by dousing the film liberally with unnecessary narration. In the scene where Gatsby empties drawers full of his handmade shirts to cascade down on Daisy, proving that he is finally at her level of extravagance and wealth, why do we need Nick to tell us in voiceover how sad she looks? We see her in a medium shot with Gatsby, and she’s crying.
Granted the novel has some wonderful passages, and a few of them are certainly worth including, but too much voiceover is a sign that the filmmakers are not doing their job. More show, less tell.
Except other parts of the film (the party scenes in particular) are ALL show. So the pendulum swings back and forth throughout the film like the trapeze artists in Gatsby’s cavernous ballroom. With all the visual bombast, the anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack (Jay-Z is an executive producer), is surprisingly subdued and far less controversial than the pre-release build-up.
Lurhmann and Craig Pearce, who co-wrote the script, also add a head-scratching framing story of Nick in a sanitorium, writing the novel as therapy for his severe depression. This is a dubious and lazy plot device that inadvertently raises the question of whether Nick is a reliable narrator—except that the ending saves it. Whatever you think of the film, the very last scene is memorable, both as a clever idea and a beautiful image to leave with the audience.
Mr. Luhrmann is an ecstatic filmmaker with extraordinary vision and an undeniable command of the cinematic language. Unfortunately this very bravura is suffocating in “The Great Gatsby.” Even the reliable Joel Edgerton is cartoonish as Tom Buchanan, mostly because his character is so broadly written as an elitist and racist brute.
There are also some moments conspicuously absent. Where in the film is the suggestion of Nick’s homosexuality? This would seem irresistible to Luhrmann, and yet the movie softens it to the point of obscurity. [SPOILER ALERT] There is also the curious choice to dramatize Gatsby’s death and not his funeral, the reverse of the novel and far less effective.
Perhaps there will be another film of “The Great Gatsby” before too long. At present we have two extremes: the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow is dull, distant and reverent, while Luhrmann’s is frenetic, overwrought and excessive. The ideal tone might be somewhere in the middle.
Technically the film is first-rate, except when Catherine Martin’s wildly-creative production design upstages the actors. Still, the evocation of aristocratic East Egg, nouveau-riche West Egg, and the working-class “valley of ashes” in between, is visually stunning.
The dizzying editing by Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa can be headache-inducing, especially in 3D, but later as the story becomes increasingly character-driven, the pacing is more effective. Simon Duggan’s cinematography is a stylistic pastiche, so to the extent this is exactly what Luhrmann wants it is excellent on its own terms.
As a commentary on class and wealth still relevant today, and a love story for the ages, it’s hard to argue against Luhrmann’s bold vision, however successful, to capture that essence in the present, with digital 3D and modern music. Uneven, overly-long, but fitfully satisfying, the entire enterprise nonetheless echoes the novel’s famous last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”