Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s gaudy adaptation of The Great Gatsby hits all the high points but plumbs few of the depths of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel. It’s a cartoon take on the classic novel of one man’s collision with the American dream during the Roaring Twenties, and much like its characters it indulges in a glut of glamour but has no real soul.
It remains a simple yet elegant story, with aspiring author and would-be bond salesman Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arriving in New York from the Midwest in 1922, at a time of postwar euphoria and Prohibition-era rebelliousness, morals are looser, optimism is more abundant, and the crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression is barely a speck on the horizon.
While staying in Long Island he reconnects with his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and is quickly drawn into the restless world of the rich and privileged, where he becomes a not-so-innocent bystander in a love triangle involving Daisy, her priggish old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and Nick’s mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It’s no surprise that Luhrmann chooses to dress up Fitzgerald’s delicate prose with digitally composed 3-D tracking shots, anachronistic pop music, and style with a capital “S” — this is, after all, the man who transported Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to ’90s-era southern California and cross-pollinated Moulin Rouge!‘s bohemian French sitting with jukebox musical aesthetics.
To a certain degree, those experiments succeeded; with Gatsby, not so much. Luhrmann usually tries to keep his finger on the pulse of the story; here, he skims the surface while burying it under an avalanche of style that makes the entire thing feel artificial when it should come across as elegant.
Luhrmann and Pearce hew impressively close to Fitzgerald’s novel, hitting all the major beats, shuffling just a little of the plot, and lifting whole sections of dialogue. It’s a slavish interpretation though, one that seems satisfied to merely lift the story from the page without really illuminating it. Most of the changes are small and debatable, though at least one — the removal of the parallel romance between Nick and Jordan — robs the story of a key subplot and necessary contrast.
Overall, it comes across as an ironically appropriate form of conspicuous consumption, and it’s not much of an actor’s vehicle. Maguire’s Nick is recast as an alcoholic headcase and reduced to a passive observer, Mulligan as Daisy fails to make us understand Gatsby’s infatuation, and the talented Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher are wasted in one-note roles. DiCaprio tries to elevate his character as best he can, but Gatsby as interpreted by Luhrmann and Pearce is stripped of his turmoil and rendered as a needy obsessive instead of the tragic, enigmatic, and lovelorn figure he is meant to be. Edgerton is the only one comes out unscathed, delivering a solid, nuanced performance as the loathsome Tom.
It’s certainly watchable in a detached sort of way, although the uninitiated are likely to wonder what all the fuss over the novel is about. Fitzgerald wrote his novel as a critique of what he saw as a shallowness in American society that increased in direct proportion to its prosperity. Luhrmann fails to see that; ironically, he’s content to simply make a shallow movie about shallow people. At least Fitzgerald got the sad, sorry punchline to the joke.