I am exhausted. Moments ago, the credits rolled for Baz Luhrmann’s $127 million 3-D film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. As I stood there, outside of the Ziegfeld Theatre in Midtown Manhattan, pondering Luhrmann’s operatic blunder—and my pounding headache—I thought of all the feeble attempts at translating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated 1925 novel to the screen. All have failed at grasping its themes, ironies, and allusions. What they do not know is that, amid these monolithic skyscrapers and thump-thump-rah-rah revelry, it’s an exercise in futility.
Fitzgerald’s novel is, after all, a cautionary tale about the decline of the American empire, drowning itself in a sea of excess. The empire, of course, didn’t fall. So over the years, the saga of James Gatz has been appropriated by the victors into a celebration of the very excess it abhorred. A similar thing happened to Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, which is now a favorite among budding Masters of the Universe. The Australian filmmaker Luhrmann, best known for the boisterous Bohemian musical Moulin Rouge!, revels in the glitz and glamour of the Roaring ’20s, completely losing sight of the story’s central message.
Luhrmann’s movie opens with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a once-fledgling bond trader and aspiring writer in 1920s New York, in a sanitarium. Carraway is suffering from a variety of maladies, ranging from alcoholism to depression, and is urged by his doctor to write about what’s eating away at him as a form of emotional catharsis. It’s a bizarre framing device from the outset that deviates from Fitzgerald’s story and, coupled with gloomy images of clouds engulfing the Buchanan estate, recalls another DiCaprio star vehicle: Shutter Island. Occasionally, words will appear on the screen as he narrates, in forms ranging from script to typewriter. It’s puzzling.
Through voiceover narration, Carraway tells the story of Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), a mysterious, outrageously rich figure who stages elaborate weekly parties at his Long Island mansion on the water. Carraway, struggling bond trader that he is, lives in a tiny house adjacent to Gatsby’s estate and establishes a friendship with the enigmatic showman. He soon comes to realize that Gatsby is using him to reconnect with his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), a gorgeous socialite-flapper with whom he is hopelessly in love. But she is married to old-money Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a McTeague-like brute with a penchant for eugenicist rants who is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), who is married to a lowly mechanic (Jason Clarke).
Carraway comes to learn that Gatsby and Daisy were once very much in love, but their romance was shattered by the outbreak of the First World War. Five years—and a mega-bootlegging fortune later—Gatsby is so fixated on Daisy that he’s erected his opulent castle across the water from the Buchanan estate, throws weekly free-for-alls in the hopes she’ll attend, and is tormented by the blinking green light at the end of Daisy’s dock which he gazes at longingly, endlessly.
Luhrmann is like Cecil B. DeMille on MDMA, and Gatsby’s parties, as filmed by Luhrmann, are like the Met Ball meets Cirque de Soleil meets the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics—or, simply put, pumped-up outtakes from the similarly aqua-hued The Aviator. The parties, along with a host of other vexing scenes in the film, are accompanied by a cacophony of hoots, hollers, strings, popped corks, and jazz-rap, oft-provided by the film’s soundtrack composer, Jay-Z. While exquisitely designed and costumed by Luhrmann’s Oscar-winning wife, Catherine Martin, with help from Miuccia Prada and Brooks Brothers, these parties provide an all-out assault on the senses and crumble under, in the words of Fitzgerald, “the colossal vitality of [Luhrmann’s] illusion.”
About 30 minutes into the film, we are introduced to Gatsby at one of these parties. With his immaculate suits, coiffed blond hair, and beaming blue eyes, DiCaprio hasn’t been this beautifully photographed since Titanic. He is filmed as Redford, who infamously portrayed Gatsby in a 1974 screen version, was in his heyday—the light perfectly touching the 38-year-old actor’s face. And DiCaprio doesn’t just look the part, but delivers one of his best performances in recent memory as he vividly captures the tragic, obsessive glare of this doomed antihero.
In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of Luhrmann’s film is the casting of DiCaprio as Gatsby and Maguire as Carraway. Whereas Fitzgerald’s tome sees Carraway look upon Gatsby’s lifestyle—and the moochers who dance on his floors and guzzle his pricey champagne—as empty vessels worthy of our scorn, in the film, Carraway is so in awe of Gatsby’s vulgar displays of wealth that he not only plays wingman, but also wants to become him. So the casting of DiCaprio and Maguire, life-long friends since they appeared together as kids in the 1993 film This Boy’s Life, adds a layer of depth to the proceedings as one can imagine Maguire felt a similar degree of awe during DiCaprio’s golden-party-boy period in the mid-’90s, when Maguire was still struggling to make a name for himself pre-Spider-Man.
In addition to the dizzying parties and the narration literally splashed across the screen, Luhrmann’s film employs a variety of other visual tricks, presented in 3-D, that are wildly unnecessary, including split-screens, newsreel footage, and a constantly twisting camera that pulls away fast for several overhead shots of CGI cities and towns. Tom Hooper’s swooping camera in Les Misérables has nothing on Luhrmann. The two most groan-worthy moments of the film are the car accident scene with Myrtle, shot in slo-mo—and repeated twice—that’s reminiscent of an overindulgent Zack Snyder action sequence, and when an apparition of Daisy actually appears in the clouds.
Speaking of Daisy, Mulligan does as elegant a job as possible portraying such a vacuous character. And she looks fabulous. Maguire is also convincing as the starry-eyed narrator, though his voiceovers, delivered in the actor’s signature monotone whimper, become increasingly irritating as the film progresses. It’s curious that Maguire was cast in the role of the narrator, too, considering his scenes were cut playing a similar role in Life of Pi. DiCaprio aside, the best performances come courtesy of Edgerton as the disgusting Tom and gorgeous newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s party-girl pal, Jordan Baker.
In The New York Times’s obituary for F. Scott Fitzgerald, the paper wrote, “With the skill of a reporter and ability of an artist he captured the essence of a period when flappers and gin and ‘the beautiful and the damned’ were the symbols of the carefree madness of an age.” The same, unfortunately, can’t be said of Luhrmann’s disorienting film.