After four wildly different tries at bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald's much-admired tome The Great Gatsby to the silver screen, I'm starting to think it may simply be unadaptable. Maybe the acknowledgement of such will keep hubristic filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann from dusting off the text every few decades to try, try again. The book, a mainstay of Honors English classes across the country, retains much of its appeal thanks to its vivid depiction of the roaring '20s and the simple poetry of its central arc, and the inability of Hollywood hands to properly crack it remains something of a head-scratcher to me.
The most "recent" celluloid adaptation of Gatsby, 1974's Jack Clayton-directed Robert Redford starrer, is almost forty years old, and while it was beautiful to look at it was absolutely stultifying to sit through, with Redford and Mia Farrow making for an ill-fitting romantic coupling, and a severe lack of dramatic urgency hobbling the proceedings as the plot sauntered through its paces. In crafting his re-adaptation (co-scripted with Craig Pearce), it's as if Luhrmann looked at the dull Clayton version, noted the lack of energy, and made a concerted effort to err in the exact opposite direction.
In that sense, the director's dimensionally-enhanced adaptation of Fitzgerald is exactly what you'd expect when you hear that the Moulin Rouge helmer is giving Gatsby a go: loud, pompous, long on spectacle. It's a film that feels less like a literate attempt to translate Fitzgerald to the screen than it does the moonshine-induced fever dream of a crazed wino who drifted to sleep with a crumpled copy of the book clutched to his chest. There's not much room for subtlety and sophistication in this spectacle, but it goes all-in on the omnipresent artifice that typifies Luhrmann.
Occupying the center ring of this 3D circus is Leonardo DiCaprio (who re-teams with the director after 1996's Romeo + Juliet, and whose head seems to be getting wider with each new project) as the title character, one Jay Gatsby, a mystery-shrouded "new" millionaire who delights the NY glitteratti with lavish galas at his labyrinthine estate every night. Into this mix comes new neighbor Nick Carraway (longtime DiCaprio pal Tobey Maguire), our narrator and center-of-gravity, as well as Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the flapper whose emotions are the engine the entire story hums atop, and her abusive/magnetic husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).
While he's assembled an impressive lineup to march to his orders, this isn't a movie about acting and performances as much as it is a receptacle for Luhrmann's quirky take on the subject matter. As such, it foregrounds his digitally-realized, fantasy version of '20s New York (with a Jazz-heavy soundtrack that seems to switch to Jay-Z and Beyonce whenever we pan over to black characters). While DiCaprio and Edgerton emerge mostly unscathed in all of this, Mulligan and Maguire are practically blown off the screen, coming off like children playing dress-up in their parents' clothes, mouthing old-timey bromides they don't seem to understand.
In fact, the illusory nature of the proceedings is heightened to such a degree that it could be interpreted as either a brilliant, meta-textual commentary on the story, or simply be the pre-ordained result of a director so engrossed in concocting the sizzle that he forgot to add the steak. It doesn't even matter, though, because Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby is exactly that. It creates a dizzying dreamscape that hangs loosely on the skeleton of Fitzgerald's original premise, but owes more to the particular peculiarities of its director than the actual intentions of its original author. C