Let’s just get this out of the way: Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is a swirling, ostentatious mess of a movie. There are things in it that don’t work, and things that do – as will inevitably happen when your primary formal strategy is to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Like Luhrmann’s previous work (“Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!”), “The Great Gatsby” is loud and proud, an orgy of bright lights, big parties, beautiful people and overwrought emotion. And like his titular subject, Luhrmann doesn’t seem much to see or care about the difference between excess and sophistication. It’s as if the film were an exotic dancer that lures you deep into a world of sex and decadence and fantasy before puking confetti in your face.
If that sounds like an unpleasant experience on paper, it’s bizarrely fascinating in person. At its worst (pretty much the whole first half hour, for instance), it’s a dedicated fiasco, completely losing the narrative thread in in a barrage of slick cinematography and frantic editing; at its best, Luhrmann’s superficiality blends right in with Fitzgerald’s melodrama, a shimmering vision of false hopes and broken dreams. This “Gatsby” is inconsistently effective, but unlike the deathly dull 1974 Redford/Farrow version, it’s consistently bold and arousing.
Things get off to a rough start, as Luhrmann immediately stumbles with the greatest concern of any “Gatsby” adaptation: what to do with Nick Carraway’s narration. Nick’s subjective musings are the novel – it has to be clear that the entire story is told through his green-tinted glasses, or else the tale becomes not much more than that of a few failed, sordid affairs. Luhrmann chooses to just insert giant lumps of Fitzgerald’s prose en masse via Tobey Maguire’s voice-over, which in itself would be tiresome and only gets worse when the director also tacks on a superfluous framing device to “explain” its presence. Showing Nick write down the book as some sort of phenomenally dubious therapy in a sanitorium does nothing but periodically interrupt the story’s flow, all for the sake of some words floating across the screen like a Justin Bieber lyrics video on YouTube. Combine the image of Maguire in front of a typewriter with the slam-bang pace of the film’s opening and one can’t help but think of “Moulin Rouge” and wonder if Luhrmann doesn’t know how to start a film any other way.
But whereas the perpetual motion machine of “Moulin Rouge” started to fall apart when Luhrmann had to actually settle down and tell a story, the opposite occurs in “Gatsby,” as the film drastically improves the second Leonardo DiCaprio shows up and (through sheer force of presence, I think) makes the director start loitering on the plot. Gatsby’s entrance is perfect: after a number of half-glances, we get a lingering, slow-motion closeup of DiCaprio’s gloriously boyish face, as fireworks explode in the background and a vigorous jazz band pounds out the final chords of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Compared to the more noticeable modern tracks on the ballyhooed, Jay-Z-produced soundtrack, Gershwin is a straightforward, but subtly inspired choice: consider the title of that piece again and tell me that’s not the opening act of “Gatsby” in a nutshell.
DiCaprio plays the ill-fated Gatsby with the right combination of false airs, romanticism and desperation; the way he dismisses his sinister manservant, perpetually hounding his master with shadowy phone calls and business meetings, with a harried “Not now, not now!” is a terrific mantra for a man perpetually stuck in the past. Furthermore the actor does an excellent job of silently conveying the oppressive, ceaseless presence of Gatsby’s dreams – no matter who or what is in front of him, DiCaprio always seems to be thinking about something else. I also can’t remember the last time Leo did some straight comedy (“Catch Me if You Can,” perhaps?) and there’s a bit in here with a clock that Chaplin would be proud of.
With Gatsby’s arrival, the film finds a purpose behind all its swagger, and DiCaprio leads the tremendous cast through the relatively more focused back half of the film. Every casting decision here was spot on (well, except perhaps Indian acting legend Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim, but that’s more a curiosity than an annoyance): Maguire nails Nick’s platonic fascination with his self-made neighbor; newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, as Jordan, stays diffident and aloof; and Joel Edgerton (“Warrior,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), as Tom Buchanan, is blustering and dumb, but not that dumb, know what I mean? The most difficult task of all, of course, falls to Carey Mulligan. Girlish and bubbly on the outside (but not the frail pixie that Mia Farrow was), Mulligan understands that Daisy’s inner life is supposed to be something of a cipher. You can see how two radically different men like Gatsby and Buchanan can both project their desires on to her, and how she herself gets torn between them.
The film’s best scenes are those where the director backs away and just lets this ensemble rip into each other and into their characters. But Luhrmann is not one to be restrained, and in some kind of post-modern twist on Art Deco, insists on excessive extravagance through CGI. It makes sense as a visual strategy to recreate the artificial, inflated lavishness of the 1920s, and the over-the-top production and costume design work deserves to be commended for its sheer, engrossing bombast; but the fact remains that much of Art Deco’s ornamentation simply looks tacky today, and I suspect that the easy out of creating aesthetically pleasing images through visual effects will, given time, appear much the same.
It is by no stretch of the imagination a substitute for reading the book, but Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is at least a daring attempt to apply its director’s taste for spectacular spectacular to an unexpected literary connection. Its simultaneous triumph and failure is sure to make it one of the most talked-about films of the year.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars, for now (I recommend seeing it; I don’t feel comfortable passing ultimate judgment on it yet)