If “director Baz Luhrmann” and “restraint” have ever appeared in the same sentence together, they were the word-bread creating a sandwich around the phrase “has absolutely no.” Considering that the gaudy Jay Gatsby is basically Luhrmann’s spirit animal, the union made sense, even if the alleged $200 million budget for a 3-D version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel set to music selected by Jay-Z didn’t. Delivering on the promise of opulent visuals and dense performances, but weighed down by a dud of a narrator, The Great Gatsby is a mixed bag, a cocktail party with a horrid host but fascinating guests.
Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce wisely acknowledge Fitzgerald was the most talented writer of the three of them and largely keep things close to the original text. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to a cottage in West Egg next to the mysterious party-thrower Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Directly across from Gatsby’s mansion is the home of his former beloved, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), the wife of wealthy philanderer Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
The cinematic Nick is stripped of any of Fitzgerald’s tiny cues of potential homosexuality. Thus, his inaction as Tom bangs his mistress, Myrtle (Isla Ficher), and his muteness during the volcanic conflicts involving Daisy, Tom and Gatsby make him feel rather pathetic. And as the glitter-and-jazz first half of the movie segues into the romantically terse second half, Luhrmann’s touch becomes stunningly limp. By the time all revelations have been revealed and all death has been dealt, The Great Gatsby isn’t so much concerned with greatness as just sputtering across the finish line.
There’s been so much opining on whether the novel can or should be adapted and so little acknowledgement of how it’s entirely impossible for anyone to completely botch a brilliant story this innately American. Gatsby and Daisy’s tragic romance is still a cautionary capitalist tale, a warning that it may be possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps but you may lose your soul or your life. This adaptation isn’t so much the nuanced indictment the original work displayed so much as a fascinating broader question: Is there any “right way” to be rich?
As Luhrmann was magnetically drawn to the story, so was DiCaprio primed to play this role. He has long explored a darkness his boyish looks and swoon-inducing-appeal belie. Think of his troubled roles in The Beach, The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island and remember James Cameron once courted him to play Peter Parker in an aborted version of Spider-Man. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is both mesmerizing and in a state of implosion; the performance is damn near perfect.
Maguire and Mulligan were also present. Not much more can be said, considering Luhrmann cared not to complicate either’s role, presenting Daisy as a flawed caged bird and Nick as a eunuch. Better as a whole than the sum of its parts, The Great Gatsby mirrors its title figure: it is over-ambitious, over-reaching and over-stylized but damn if it’s not mostly irresistible, too.
— This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.
Rating: Three out of four stars