Baz Luhrmann believes in green lights—along with orgiastic parties, racing roadsters, and 3-D visuals that might pop even the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. Moulin Rouge!’s fearless taste-destroyer may seem like a tacky fit for one of the undisputed masterpieces of American literature. Still, the director has often scored when he’s gone highbrow. Like Romeo + Juliet (1996), Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby emerges as a half-reverent, half-travestying adaptation that’s campy but not a betrayal, offering a lively take on a familiar work while sacrificing such niceties as structure, character, and nuance.
In Baz-world, there’s nothing illogical about mixing Jay-Z with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cynical portrait of Jazz Age values. (The rapper executive-produced.) Luhrmann’s take on Jay-G begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) writing from a sanitarium that—for 3-D purposes—seems to have been constructed inside a giant snow globe. Flash back to Long Island, where a single tracking shot carries viewers from West Egg across the bay, hitting a sail. Cut to: East Egg! Here, in the opulence of the Buchanan mansion, Carey Mulligan’s Daisy appears amid a preposterously luxe flutter of billowing curtains.
Every party is a bacchanal—and for an hour, the nonstop flow of liquor, steroidal Busby Berkeley setpieces, and swirling confetti are enough to keep the movie engaging. For once, Luhrmann’s gaudiness serves his material. The flagrantly fake New York backdrops—the movie was largely shot at Sydney’s Fox Studios—seem oddly appropriate for a story concerned with artifice and ostentatious wealth. (The real director to make this movie was Douglas Sirk.)
The casting is also inspired: Introduced with a flourish of Gershwin, Leonardo DiCaprio finds the right blend of self-doubt and assurance as Gatsby, and he’s well-matched with the similarly ageless Maguire. Fresh face Elizabeth Debicki exudes appeal as brassy Jordan Baker, and Joel Edgerton is especially strong as brutish Tom Buchanan. Only Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke, flustered as cuckolded George Wilson, can’t find the right register of stylization.
None of this should be discounted, given the checkered history of screen Gatsbys, most notably 1974’s stuffy Robert Redford vehicle and an intriguing 1949 version that accentuates the novel’s affinities with film noir. Still, whatever else The Great Gatsby may be—a jaundiced retort to the American Dream, a love story of sorts between two men, an influence on reinvention stories touching everything from James M. Cain to Mad Men—it’s not the great romance Luhrmann apparently had in mind as a selling point. Unsurprisingly, the movie grinds to a halt the minute Daisy and Gatsby reunite. Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce milk the pair’s dalliance for far more than it’s worth, an emphasis at once plodding and pandering. Eager to show reverence by scrawling large chunks of Fitzgerald’s language on screen, the filmmakers seem less interested in subtext, class issues, or much beyond the opportunities the novel provides for spectacle.
While it gets points for a Sunset Blvd. homage, even the finale goes soft. The movie leaves the sense that, like Gatsby himself, Luhrmann has bought the book without cutting the pages.