Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce) is the fourth cinematic rendering of one of the essentials. Ever thirty odds years or so, Hollywood summons the courage (despite past mistakes) to hopefully get it right. The novel has tripped many up before, what with Fitzgerald's somewhat plotless prose evoking near sacrilege status for re-invention along with characterizations that read largely more like ideals than thinking, breathing human beings. The much maligned 1974 version directed by Jack Clayton (written by Francis Ford Coppola) tried to put a stately touch to the material, but flatlined with the drama, evoking nothing more than a pretty 1920s-era (by way of the 1970s) postcard. Baz Luhrmann does do something radical with the entombed novel, dubbed by many as the Great American Novel, but it's largely just on the surface.
Mind you it's a maddeningly beautiful surface. For the parties that mysterious nouveau riche billionaire Jay Gatsby throws in the attempt to impress and finally court his longtime love Daisy are a marvelous old-new concoction that serve Luhrmann, the purveyor of Spectacular-sized entertainment as well as the auteur in a manner that gets right into the trenches of the feeling the Roaring Twenties might have evoked for the flappers and all else. Criticize the filmmaker all you wish for including hip hop tracks to deejay the festivities, the anachronism achieves a blissfully lurid experience coupled with the marvelously decadent production design and costume numbers (each handled courtesy of Luhrmann's partner in more than one ways, Catherine Martin, who will likely be seeing a few more Oscar nominations come her way.) Filtered together and edited into a sort of blended stew, there's intoxicating and rich high that's achieved. As Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" hums, fireworks alight the Long Island bay just outside in a perfect symphony of noise and colors. Bravura and, in at least at the very beginning, digs sharply into the meglo-madness that Fitzgerald was all enraged about in the first place. Of course, the party must come to an end at some point.
There's the trickiness of the narrative to get through as well. As in the novel, the film is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), this time a la Moulin Rouge! writing the past events in the invented sanctuary of a sanitarium, driven blistering mad by alcoholism and anxiety by what he's experienced. He's the cousin of Daisy, the prim epitome of old world beauty. Newly rich in the fortunes of the era, Nick is the also the West Egg neighbor of Jay Gatsby, he is quickly immersed into the hedonistic foreign world of spectacle, glamor and all that which inspired surely a great many soap operas. Mysteriously befriended by Gatsby as a sidekick to lure Daisy back-- she lives at the other end of the bay in East Egg, directly across Gatsby's grand estate, symbolized by a blinking green light, on which he is frequently staring at. Part of the narrative struggles of The Great Gatsby preside in the fact that in essence it will always be Nick's story, his memories, an expression of which can encumber the plot as our surrogate is just that-- his burdening plight has little consequence to the tale itself. Luhrmann tries to correct this, but Maguire's bland and plucky portrait offers little insight. The likable performer is tad too old for a character this readily eager, and it suggests in an unflattering light his most furtive cinematic period nearly a decade ago before Spider-man became his calling card.
Ushered into pull of this singular Jay-Z-scored take of Jazz Age, Nick becomes foil for Gatsby, and compatriot to Daisy's troupe of Old Money regulars-- golf champ friend Jordan Baker (newcomer Elizabeth Debicki) and her sketchy husband Tom (an excellent Joel Edgerton.) Tom comes in tow a mistress on the side from the poor section of town-- a woman who has the forthright to call during meals-- Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher.) There's a sequence early on where Nick travails with Tom to a hotel room for assorted shenanigans that at first reads as a scene that may have at first been written atop the Elephant suite in Moulin Rouge!. So assertive in its debased debauchery, The Great Gatsby takes its time (more so in its overly generous two-and-a-half-hour running time) to settle and breathe from its arch "too much"-ness. The biggest problem is that when it does so, the drama has run out of steam.
Which leads to perhaps the most nagging concern when trying to adapt The Great Gatsby in the first place. It starts with the title character himself-- an oblique image of elegance and refined beauty (and a role that suits and tailors an actor like DiCaprio, at least on the surface of things, like a fine toothed comb), but he's merely that-- an image, a symbol, a sacred totem of a lost boy who reinvented himself as a gentleman seemingly for nothing more than to court another beguiling specimen. Of course, there's a dark belly that scratches that elegant surface (and everybody knows it), but it's still a hardly tangible character to flesh out. Daisy is even more difficult. Herself, relegated to a mere supporting idea of beauty and idealism in what is supposed to be a his and her epic romantic drama, can really only a tease, a glimmer of femininity in an adaptation done correctly, a mere cipher can only do so much in her part of a star-crossed love affair. And Luhrmann's take closely hews Fitzgerald's narrative, visual aplomb taken aside. The leading actors, themselves finely coiffed and perfectly bred, offer only a whisk of interpretation themselves, which may work for the artifice, but stalls anything close to drama.
It's unfortunate as the supporting characters, while many of whom are given significantly lesser roles than in the novel, create vivid and exciting portraits that feel lived-in to Luhrmann's master set piece as well as grand ciphers to Fitzgerald's world as originally created. Edgerton is absolutely watchable and rich as Daisy's philandering husband, opting big to match the set design, but distilling a hard Old Money flare to his line readings. Fisher, as well as Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as her cuckold dim bulb of a husband are reduced so greatly in the film, that the third act drags along on the wisp of circumstance, but the two actors game as can be. Dedicki as Jordan is vivacious and offers plenty of presence despite limited screen time-- in the novel she's upgraded to Nick's lover, here she's more of first mate which plagues a question only round aboutly hinted at-- may the great romance of The Great Gatsby truly lie in Nick's eternal fascination of Gatsby himself. That may have been the cork needed to wipe the cobwebs of the dusty masterwork in the first place.
That may have been something. Alas, Luhrmann seems only interested in the unlocking The Great Gatsby in familiar ways, perhaps afraid of offering, ahem, some sense of narrative discovery to a property nearly one hundred years old. I certainly hope it doesn't seem like I'm hating on this grandly shaped film, because I quite enjoyed it, I just wasn't immersed in it the way that only a compelling drama can. There's a singular, bewitching, maddening beauty to The Great Gatsby, of which Luhrmann excels in driving at. There's also a twinge of possibility of what it may have been had the filmmaker partook dramatic license to the same degree on which he does visually. B-