F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby begins slowly, builds to a feverish, melodramatic pitch, and then wraps everything up with the grandest, greatest valedictory in American literature. It is also a triumph of style over substance: Fitzgerald's gorgeous, elliptical prose transforms a sordid tale about a social striver who sells his soul to win back a poor little rich girl into an ever-relevant fable about money, ambition, love, and time.
Such subjects have formed the backbone of countless great movies. And there are always directors who've got so much style that it's wasted. Yet Fitzgerald's greatest work has thwarted any filmmaker bold enough to try to wed its ineffable qualities to the perishable film image. Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby is hardly a huge failure. But its limitations pile higher as its artificial universe grows more tiresome.
First, the good news: The cast is an improvement from the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Leonardo DiCaprio's ageless good looks and simmering rage are perfect for the part of Gatsby; his first official meeting with his lovestruck next-door neighbor Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) should have high school students and English teachers high-fiving each other in happy disbelief. Carey Mulligan is a more calculating, less dopey Daisy Buchanan whose voice is nevertheless only half-full of money. Joel Edgerton's Tom Buchanan mixes polo-player arrogance with magnanimous scorn. And as Daisy's friend Jordan Baker, Elizabeth Debicki always looks so cool. Plus, the parties at Gatsby's Long Island castle flash and dazzle like a nonstop New Year's Eve.
Such surfaces are compelling. But the filmmakers bungle the story. With minor cosmetic changes, Luhrmann's Gatsby follows the events of the novel. But something gets reversed in the telling; this hyper-processed, slick tale begins feverishly and peaks too early before winding down into trashy torpor.
In addition, all of the novel's timely elisions and ambiguities are made explicit in the movie. Here, Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce make a colossal mistake. The famous scene where Gatsby showers Daisy with his fancy shirt collection is deliriously romantic onscreen, but when Luhrmann and Pearce give voice to the sweet nothings murmured between lovestruck Daisy and Gatsby, the spell cast by the images and gestures shatters. Plus, it's difficult not to wince when Luhrmann and Pearce spread parts of Fitzgerald's text on the screen, IM-style, during one of Nick's many whiny voiceovers.
In short, Luhrmann shows that, when it comes to filming an unfilmable book, you can't repeat the past. But of course he can. And too often, he does.
The Great Gatsby