On a visual and sonic level, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby lives up to its glittery timeline-blurring potential. His camera swooping through a gorgeously rendered 1920s New York that out-sparkles his similar Parisian swoops in Moulin Rouge!, the director updates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved tragedy of the self-made American Dream with energy to spare. Expectedly taking its fair share of liberties, it’s the film’s surprising adherence to the source material, however, that prevents it from truly rising above. As such, a rousing good time gives way to dramatic drudgery that sorely lacks the eye and ear candy to overcome the classic story’s onscreen weaknesses.
Framed by an effective writing-as-therapy angle that, like many of The Great Gatsby’s elements, also mirrors Moulin Rouge!, the film recounts the great love and respect of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) for his neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Simply trying to work his way up in the world as a bond salesman, Nick is catapulted into the booming society around him and its opulent homes, beautifully rendered by Luhrmann and his gifted production designers. Guided by wealthy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, embracing his inner bastard), the husband of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Nick experiences the splendor and frenzied danger of this lifestyle, capped with a party at Tom’s secret apartment where an unrecognizable Isla Fisher as his saucy mistress Myrtle Wilson holds court.
The world becomes an even more exciting place once Nick at last meets the elusive Gatsby. As played by DiCaprio, looking boyishly handsome and happy for the first time since Catch Me If You Can, the eponymous hero wields a confidence and magnetism that outshines his contemporaries. Joyfully speeding through the city in his yellow custom convertible, he and Nick pass such distinctly Luhrmannesque delights as a car of wealthy African Americans blasting Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and receive V.I.P. treatment at a speakeasy where the rapper’s music continues its oddly fitting Idlewild-like appeal. In Gatsby’s care, Nick experiences the peak of high society at his new friend’s grandiose, all-inclusive parties, and with the assistance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (set to fireworks, no less, in a boozy, colorized nod to Woody Allen’s Manhattan) the lavishness of the particular time and place come through in delicious fashion.
The purpose of this friendship, however, is for Nick to help Gatsby reconnect with Daisy, the old flame for whom the millionaire’s showmanship is solely designed. Once they are indeed reunited, the mystique and discovery that carries the film’s first half gives way to a stodgy, somewhat repetitive secret love section, paired with a more subdued visual style and a considerable decrease in atmospheric splendor. Even at Gatsby’s subsequent parties, the mood is noticeably less vibrant, and though Luhrmann manages to occasionally revive the allure, both the story’s intrigue and its dizzying sensory display never quite recover.
These issues are likely more inherent of Fitzgerald’s writing than Lurhmann’s film, but by remaining faithful to literary events that translate poorly to the screen, The Great Gatsby does itself a disservice. Similar issues dog Joe Wright’s recent Anna Karenina, another visually creative adaptation whose imaginative style ultimately has its limits. In both cases, a little more movie magic is required to overcome the respective source material’s cinematic flaws, yet the calls go unrequited. For Gatsby especially, that’s not to say that the magic is missing on the whole, just that it’s mysteriously absent when needed most. Still, if Luhrmann’s showmanship can’t elevate these crucial scenes while capturing the essence of the novel, perhaps no one can.
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.
The Great Gatsby is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.