I don’t know if it’s the strength of Fitzgerald’s novel or Luhrman’s good understanding of it, but this is a far better adaptation than I was expecting.
In case you weren’t in an American high school, The Great Gatsby follows Nick Carraway (played here by Tobey Maguire), a bond trader moved to New York from the Midwest. He purchases a small house in West Egg, a suburb of New York City, and lives across the bay from his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Nick’s college friend, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick’s neighbor is the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a playboy who’d be notable for the monstrous parties he throws each weekend were it not for the cryptic means through which he funds them.
Nick attends one of Gatsby’s parties, swept up with intrigue and confusion about his host — hearing rumors of his relation to the Kaiser; tales of his work as a spy; whispers of his past at Oxford — many of them from his new acquaintance Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), female golfer and social gossipista.
Eventually he runs into Gatsby, who appears at Gershwin’s moment of climax during Rhapsody in Blue. The two stir a friendship and small details of Gatsby’s history begin to drip out. He came from a wealthy family. He’s a hero of World War I. He’s…story after story. And, years ago, he was desperately in love with Daisy. But the war and school and other things kept them apart, leaving Tom to claim her. Gatsby’s convinced that, given some time with his lost love, he could convince her to leave her husband and marry him. It’s a solid plan, especially seeing as how Tom is not particularly discreet about his own affairs. But buried beneath this romance is…
Yes, Luhrman is the guy who made that one movie of Romeo + Juliet that is immediately distinguished by the gimmick of having a plus sign in the title. And he made the bombastic Moulin Rouge!, again making use of unusual punctuation. Why The Great Gatsby isn’t entitled The Great Gat$by is a wholly missed opportunity. He also indulges in the frantic and vivid, infusing contemporary pop culture images and songs into settings where they’re noticeably anachronistic. Okay, the Moulin Rouge was the pop culture of its time, and, for that matter, so was Shakespeare. The Great Gatsby, though not very popular at the time of publication, did highlight the flapper culture of the ’20s.
But when Gatsby zooms by a carload of flashy hip-hoppers blasting Jay-Z, it induces more groans than grins. Perhaps his intent is to show how transient popular culture is — as soon the songs and looks and so forth will be obsolete, relics of the past borne back ceaselessly. But I think it’s Luhrman being Luhrman — happy to have his own flash and glamor party up on screen. In the aesthetic’s shiny superficiality, it is appropriate, but placed around actors who play their characters fairly straight, it clashes and seems to exist on some other plane altogether. The 3-D, as well, is completely unnecessary and barely noticeable. You may as well push out the lenses.
As for the performances, DiCaprio is apt for Gatsby, he lacks the same kind of con-man charm he had in Catch Me If You Can and his forced “Old Sports” are grating, but he has the look and dash mastered. It’s not a challenge for him, but it’s not a great accomplishment either. Mulligan is utterly perfect for Daisy — flighty and transparent but with the kind of naivete men want to savage. Relative newcomer Debicki is embodiment of the suave and casually fierce ’20s woman, with barely any sense of tomorrow — and she will likely be the most gorgeous flapper ever put on film.
And even Edgerton’s mustache is a meat-head douche. The outlier, however, is Maguire, whose glassy stare and even more exaggerated detachment (has he increased the dosage on his tranquilizers?) make it difficult to believe in his role as confident — he’s a talented actor, but here he lacks the mere crumbs of a personality.
The strengths, however, rest within most of the performances and in how faithful Luhrman is to the story itself (it’s not a small accomplishment either that the 143-minute running time doesn’t feel quite that long). For all his excesses, he at least knows to keep Daisy superficial; keep his East and West apart; keep the green light and know a bit of its significance (maybe too much) and tie it into his film — not simply reference the source. The character beats and relationships, fights and concerns mostly work. And when Gatsby and Daisy meet for the first time after five years, there is an emotional power to that scene I would not have expected in any film this year.
It’s not the definitive Gatsby adaptation, but it shows a maturity and depth that isn’t apparent from, well, everything you’ve seen so far from the incessant advertising campaign and trailers. The film works despite its look and Luhrman’s apparent willingness to take any material as an excuse for his cinematic parades. Give him some credit though — the guy’s done his homework on Fitzgerald.