When Baz Luhrmann announced that he was adapting the American literary classic The Great Gatsby, anticipation and skepticism abounded in equal measure. Would the Aussie auteur's in-your-face-stylistics be the right fit for the F. Scott Fitzgerald's subtext and symbolism? An unexpected schedule change that shifted its release date from the thick of last year's awards season to a less crowded May 2013 slot only heightened the nervous curiosity. The production became enshrouded in as many rumours and unsure whisperings as the mysterious titular antihero of the novel itself.
And that's the early point at which the measured introspection ceases. Through flashback, Luhrmann hurtles us head-first into Nick's initiation into the party lifestyle of Manhattan's wealthy socialites. With the post-war economy booming and prohibition invigorating the illegal liquor industry, Nick is seduced by all manner of intoxicated orgies and wild ragers, including one hosted by his neighbour, Jay Gatsby. Though he hides himself from the public eye behind his ostentatious Xanadu on Long Island, Gatbsy is in the habit of throwing decadent parties for all the city to attend.
Luhrmann's trademark style is at its most effective when capturing this world's vulgar, superfluous luxuries. The colourful opulence of Catherine Martin's sets and costumes, the frenzied camera movements and hyperactive cutting, the multiple personalities of the era-mashing soundtrack, and even the 3D (itself, a superfluous luxury) all culminate in a sensational soiree that make it plain why they were called the “Roaring” 20s.
While everyone else staggers home at night's end, only Nick comes to meet Gatsby, befriend him, and eventually learn the millionaire's true aim: to lure over and win back the love of Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the sweetheart who he left hanging years ago so he could go off and make his fortune. Since remarried to the aggressive and philandering Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Daisy naturally finds herself torn. Can money really buy Gatsby the love of his idealized woman? Can the obscenely rich really get away with playing by different rules than the other 99%?
This iconic book has inspired yet eluded filmmakers before, and unfortunately, the same proves true with this edition. Fitzgerald's subtle indictment of capitalism, class, and the American Dream can scarcely survive Luhrmann's blitz of sights and sounds. One wishes he had included more scenes without the ubiquitous music or dizzying flare, to serve as oases of calm amidst his endless assault on the senses. These were sorely needed to moderate the pace and tone of the story, but are unfortunately few and far between. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its exhausting pace, the movie inevitably feels like it runs long.
Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce also struggle with points of reference as far as narration goes. For a screenplay that commits so literally to Nick Carroway as narrator, it makes little sense to indulge in flashbacks of events for which he was not present. A minor quibble to be sure, but it kinda removes the subjectivity from the voyeurism which is one of the novel's key thematic bases.
Since Luhrmann is clearly the star of this picture, its hard to say any of the cast really stand out. But if any one of them can make that claim it's DiCaprio. He continues to prove himself an actor capable of not only slipping into minds of enigmatic characters, but into the directorial visions of auteur filmmakers. He affords himself more animated mannerisms and stylization here than we usually see from him, keeping with Luhrmann's kinetic sensibilities.
So it's a film not without its strengths, but ultimately, it feels as though Luhrmann's lavish efforts – like Gatsby's – were sincere but misplayed. Maybe the next time someone takes a crack at Gatsby we'll actually be able to call it Great.
**1/2 out of ****