“A universe of ineffable gaudiness” — that’s how F. Scott Fitzgerald described the dreamworld inside the head of the young Jay Gatsby. He might just as well have been describing the aesthetic of Baz Luhrmann. There’s not an ungaudy scene in the Australian filmmaker’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, whether he’s depicting a bash in Gatsby’s enormous CGI mansion (it looks like Barbie’s Dream Castle) or a more modest gathering in a downscale apartment. When Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) first introduces himself, music rises to a crescendo and fireworks erupt.
In short, Luhrmann has perfectly captured the spirit of Gatsby, a self-made millionaire with a penchant for sentimentality and drama who spends his fortune on an effort to rekindle a lost love. (Other phrases from Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the man’s inner life that double as descriptions of this film include “constant, turbulent riot” and “grotesque and fantastic conceits.”) The more sober side of the novel, however, tends to be lost on the filmmaker.
To his credit, Luhrmann has preserved a great deal of Gatsby’s prose, dialogue and structure, even when it might confuse the uninitiated. His most problematic changes are additions — such as the depiction of narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as a goofball aspiring writer whose tangle with Long Island’s high society has driven him into a mental institution.
Nick’s voice in the novel is a dry, cutting counterpoint; the movie subordinates his irony to his angst and his boyish admiration for Gatsby. In the flashbacks, Maguire seems to have been directed to mug and pop his eyes as he learns of the romantic history shared by his millionaire neighbor and his glamorous cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), whose rich husband (Joel Edgerton) is as seethingly jealous as he’s boorish and unfaithful.
Other questionable changes to the material happen between the lines. Mulligan is an exquisite-looking Daisy, but such a tremulous, sensitive one that she comes across as a distressed damsel rather than a self-willed, highly complicated woman. (As her friend Jordan Baker, Elizabeth Debicki has more of the sophisticated shiftiness appropriate to this story, which is far from a conventional romance.) And was it really necessary to stage a key scene near the end so it draws a grandiose parallel between Gatsby and Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane?
“Never mind the book,” readers may say. “Is this movie a spectacle?” Oh, yeah — this is Gatsby the Broadway musical, the theme-park ride and the video game all rolled into one. Much of the Roaring ’20s panorama has that hazy, computer-animated look — but you can just think of it as a Fitzgerald-appropriate haze of wry nostalgia.
Luhrmann’s use of non-period music is neither particularly jarring here nor particularly memorable (as it was in Moulin Rouge!). Perhaps he hoped the input of Jay-Z (who executive produced) would make the story grittier and more contemporary. If so, he should have reconsidered the scene where the true pulse of the multiracial metropolis is embodied by a jazz trumpeter who inexplicably riffs on his balcony for hours while Carraway and other slumming rich folks get wild in a neighboring apartment. The iconography is so cheesy, it’s almost self-parody.
Fitzgerald’s prose does sometimes develop jazz rhythms, and Luhrmann is right to try to evoke the wider world outside Carraway’s well-bred prejudices and Gatsby’s romantic delusion. The problem is, the filmmaker has no interest in things that aren’t shiny. In the book, we’re told that Gatsby’s gaudy fantasy life “spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand.” Such mundane realities are foreign to this movie: It has no ticking clocks, no washstands, just fireworks and more fireworks.