F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated 1925 novel—now a staple of school curricula—has staunchly resisted cinematic transformation over the years. It’s impossible to say anything definite about the apparently lost 1926 silent version, but the 1949 take with Alan Ladd was a drab, tedious affair, and Jack Clayton’s 1974 epic with Robert Redford and Ali McGraw was a total stiff, opulent but inert. A 2000 television version was faithful in terms of plot but otherwise instantly forgettable.
Now comes Baz Luhrmann’s take on the book. It’s wildly overproduced in the director’s characteristically flamboyant style, with whirling camera moves, crowd scenes marked by incessant gyrations and compositions as carefully planned as Eisenstein’s, snatches of dialogue emerging from the screen in written form like magical incantations, and archival footage meshed with distressed new shots, all delivered in shimmering 3D to the accompaniment of an eclectic music score that ranges weirdly from jazz-age standards to anachronistic contemporary pop songs. There’s never enough pizzazz in Luhrmann’s music-video mentality; he’s always searching for one more visual effect to add to the mix. But it’s at least arguable that the eye-popping approach is a suitable modernist take on one of the book’s themes—grotesque excess—although it might actually be a brazen example of it.
Nor is the script, written by Luhrmann in collaboration with Craig Pearce, scrupulous in dealing with the book in other ways. From a purely literal perspective, it introduces a framing device—with Nick Carraway, the narrator, telling the story from a doctor’s office in a sanitarium, and eventually typing it out as though he were Fitzgerald—that’s a silly as it is unnecessary. But more important, it doesn’t bring out the book’s critique of the culture of the twenties, and of the hope-against-hope aspiration that Gatsby represents, which can be understood simply as the American Dream writ large and perverted. Instead it presents him simply as a tormented, doomed lover, swooning over what he’s lost and is trying desperately to recover. It’s an oversimplification of the novel to turn it into what amounts to little more than a tragic romance—a twentieth century version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which Luhrmann also made a film of. But that’s what he does here.
And yet despite the spectacle-for-spectacle’s sake filmmaking philosophy and lack of interpretive depth the picture works on its own terms. It’s easily the best version of Fitzgerald’s tome yet (though admittedly the bar isn’t terribly high), and Luhrmann’s best film since “Strictly Ballroom” (again, not the greatest of compliments). And the major reason for its success is the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. Luhrmann introduces him in a garish, frenzied party scene near the movie’s start in the way a matinee idol would have been in twenties flicks—via a luminous shot in which his slightly smiling face is shown bathed in light, startlingly reminiscent of the first appearance of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in “The Third Man” (whom DiCaprio actually resembles)—and he immediately takes hold of the screen, and the entire film. He’s brilliant, even in Luhrmann’s rather goofy version of the sequence in which Gatsby encounters his long-lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) at Nick’s tea party, where he must play the shy, bumbling suitor. And when Gatsby’s reserve finally cracks and he angrily attacks Daisy’s husband Tom (Buchanan), DiCaprio’s venomous intensity at last gives a hint of the dark underside to the character, which Luhrmann largely ignores.
As to the rest of the cast, they’re a mixed bag. Maguire certainly captures Carraway’s boyish naïvete, though his blandness is wearisomely familiar, and Joel Edgerton’s one-note bullishness as Tom gets equally grating. Daisy is a difficult character to pull off, but Mulligan does a creditable job of capturing her ethereal beauty and childish vulnerability. In her smallish part as Daisy’s ultra-sophisticated chum Jordan, Elizabeth Debicki captures the spirit of the age better than anyone else in the cast. By contrast, Isla Fisher doesn’t quite convince as Tom’s mistress Myrtle, and Jason Clarke is even less persuasive as her jealous husband, whose anger at Gatsby triggers the story’s tragic finale. That couple seems to invite a lurid approach, and Luhrmann is never one to reject that kind of invitation. (To be fair, though, Fitzgerald’s heavy-handed imagery in the last act—like the oculist’s billboard—doesn’t help matters, especially since Luhrmann chooses not only to retain it all but to play it up as exuberantly as he can.) And Amitabh Bachchan certainly cuts a striking figure as Gatsby’s “business partner” Meyer Wolfsheim, though he hardly looks the part.
Physically, of course, the film often looks astounding, with Catherine Martin’s production and costume design, the art direction by Ian Gracie, Damien Drew and Michael Turner, and Beverly Dunn’s set decoration not missing a trick, and Simon Duggan’s virtuoso cinematography, accentuated by the editing of Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine and Jonathan Redmond, casting an intoxicating spell.
In sum, this isn’t a great “Gatsby,” but it’s quite a good one. Unlike the beautiful but empty 1974 version, in which Clayton and Redford effectively embalmed the book, Luhrmann and DiCaprio bring it vividly to life, even if not in quite the fashion Fitzgerald intended.