“The Great Gatsby” is the Hope Diamond of American cinema — priceless, enviable, impossibly tacky and bad, bad luck. Many filmmakers have stepped up to the challenge of capturing its quintessentially American story of self-invention, and just about all have whiffed memorably and expensively.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann has broken the curse, and he’s done it by refusing (mostly) to be intimidated by the legendary source material, and playing up the bits that look good on screen. This is a good strategy, because “The Great Gatsby” is one of the most cinematic novels of the American canon of books you are forced to read in high school. Its recurring visual motifs come camera ready: a ghostly green light pulsating across a foggy inlet of Long Island Sound; a pair of eyes staring out from a decaying oculist’s billboard; an ash heap where the dross of Jazz Age excess smolders.
Mr. Luhrmann re-creates the visual fabric of the novel in gaudy 3-D, paying special attention to the fabulous, uproarious parties at Jay Gatsby’s mansion in the fictional town of West Egg. The club music soundtrack from Jay-Z establishes the same sort of aural anachronism Mr. Luhrmann used in “Moulin Rouge,” and it works well, capturing the sense of Roaring ‘20s abandon and depravity for contemporary audiences in a way that even the most raucous version of the Charleston certainly would not.
The details of the story are faithfully rendered, in large and small ways. Of course, as with any consideration of a film adaptation of a classic novel, pedantry must intrude. There are some literary problems with “The Great Gatsby” as reimagined by Mr. Luhrmann. First, the story is framed as a nuthouse memoir of narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who is in a secluded house undergoing some kind of talk therapy to recover from the psychic aftereffects of the conflagration that ends the story. As a cinematic device it’s mostly harmless, but at times the voice-over with passages lifted straight from the book work as stage directions that the performers cannot live up to.
For example, when we meet Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) we get a long bite of narration from Nick about Gatsby’s smile. Fitzgerald wrote, “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.” There’s more, but that’s the gist of it. Does Mr. DiCaprio smile that smile as Gatsby? Not by a long shot. But it’s hard to fault Mr. DiCaprio for coming up short — it’s Mr. Luhrmann’s fault for setting his actor an impossible task. Gatsby couldn’t even play Gatsby — that’s a big part of the story. But even by those standards, there’s some essential magnetism contained in the Gatsby image that’s missing from Mr. DiCaprio’s performance.
Sometimes, the voice-over works rather brilliantly, as in a critical scene with Tom Buchanan, in which Carraway’s character is split in two, with one acting out a drunken debauch, and a second, abstracted, self regarding his own behavior from a distance. It’s a small thing, but probably the most purely Fitzgeraldian moment of the film, and the only hint we get that Carraway may be less than a reliable narrator — a crucial theme of the novel. Joel Edgerton is wonderfully abrupt and blustery as the self-important Buchanan. It’s probably the easiest part in the novel to play, in part because Fitzgerald invented the type — the moneyed athlete whose life peaked as a college undergraduate. Carey Mulligan is an almost ideal Daisy Buchanan — beautiful but oddly hard and unreachable.
This new “Gatsby” trades the complex interior of the novel for gleaming, lurid surfaces — and it does so effectively. Mr. Luhrmann has captured a lot of the jangly excess of the book in a way that is certainly commensurate with Fitzgerald’s imagination. While the director hasn’t made a great movie out of the great book, he’s certainly made the best filmed version to date.
TITLE: “The Great Gatsby”
CREDITS: Directed by Baz Luhrmann; screenplay by Mr. Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
RATING: PG-13 for violence, depravity, and gaucherie on an epic scale
RUNNING TIME: 143 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS