Here’s what we don’t get in Baz Luhrmann’s seductive, blinged-out, 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby: a real critique of Jazz Age excesses. Oh, sure, in a narration often ripped right from the novel, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) offers up token hat-tips to the stock market bubble, alcoholism and corruption of all sorts, including infidelity, bootlegging and financial scams.
But it’s pegged more to the film’s characters than to the national character, and so the decline of the American empire — a major concern of Fitzgerald’s in the novel — receives scant attention. There’s nothing rotten at the country’s core, Luhrman and his co-writer Craig Pearce seem to say, but rather at the core of some people in the country.
What does receive attention in the movie is what always receives attention in Luhrmann’s movies: style. Gorgeous costume and production design (by Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin)? Check. Sweeping, CGI-enhanced cinematography (by Simon Duggan)? Check. Song-and-dance sequences that would make Broadway blush? Check.
So, does this mean that the latest adaptation of arguably America’s greatest novel is gorgeous fluff? Hardly. Luhrmann’s version of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) fatal love for the depressed, flighty Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) is a ferocious melodrama with an addictive swagger. It’s also buttressed by a string of solid performances (especially DiCaprio’s) and an anachronistic soundtrack (Jay-Z, The xx) that ought not work as well as it does.
The world Luhrmann creates reflects that of the novel’s. There’s New York, the glittering city of sweat and sin. There’s Long Island’s mansion-strewn East and West Egg, which is home to both the old money crowd, as represented by Daisy and her brutish husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and the new money crowd as represented by the optimistic pretender Gatsby.
Between these two sits a literal ash heap – the coal-rich wasteland where Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), and sad-sack husband, George (Jason Clarke), live. Luhrmann does a laudable job tying these disparate geographies together, both visually and thematically, even as he struggles to imbue two of the novel’s major symbols with meaning: the green light at the end of the pier at Daisy’s house, and the all-seeing eyes of a Queens oculist’s billboard. Both the light and eyes get a lot of screen time, but, despite Nick’s narration, Luhrmann can’t capture the texture of Fitzgerald’s language.
Still, only purists are going to care. Besides all of the pomp and circumstance of The Great Gatsby’s look and sound, the actors give you plenty to think about and, yes, savor. Maguire’s Nick has a touching vulnerability. Mulligan’s Daisy exhibits a weakness born of circumstance. And DiCaprio plays the perfect Gatsby — a striver whose affected upper-class accent and constant invocation of “old sport” belie a deep-seated longing and self-consciousness.
It’s a role that fits the dual sides of DiCaprio—a performer comfortable as the leading man and a character actor. Here, he gets to be both. And the film is all the better for it.
THE GREAT GATSBY Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, directed by Baz Luhrman, 143 mins