For a work that sold fairly poorly upon its 1925 publication, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — perhaps the original American #RichPeopleProblems novel, about misplaced male ambition and romantic longing, and the perils of female drivers — has enjoyed a remarkable afterlife. It remains, of course, a staple text of high school reading lists, spawning along the way a Broadway play, no fewer than four television iterations, film adaptations in 1926, 1949, 1974 and, now, director Baz Luhrmann‘s own interpretation, a glitzy Jazz Age cocktail starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The tale unfolds in flashback through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a would-be writer who in 1922 arrives in New York City, lands a job on Wall Street, and takes a rental cabin across the bay from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her philandering, blue-blooded husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and next door to the mansion of a self-fashioned and enigmatic young millionaire, Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio). Daisy and Tom live in “old-money” East Egg; Gatsby is nouveau-riche, and throws all sorts of lavish parties in West Egg. What is initially unknown to Nick, but becomes quickly apparent, is that Gatsby and Daisy used to have a fling, prior to his going off to war, and he’s taken up residence at precisely that location so that he might gaze longingly at the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s pier. When Gatsby uses his burgeoning friendship with Nick to arrange a meeting with Daisy, infidelity, heartache and tragedy ensue.
Working in a mashed-up, 3-D Art Deco fantasy world, Luhrmann (working with his longtime production/costume designer and offscreen partner Catherine Martin) brings a pinch of the same “jukebox musical” sensibility he impressed upon films like Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. Ergo, Gatsby‘s assault-on-the-senses opening party scene may cause no small amount of bewilderment, with its Jay Z-assisted soundtrack that ranges from tweaked hip-hop and organ-inflected original compositions to a pumped-up version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Given the reverence accorded most period pieces, The Great Gatsby takes a while to get into. Once one does, there’s a pleasant groove that lasts for a nice spell, but the movie never catches fire as something special.
It imparts the fizzy decadence and all that, and sounds the cautionary notes of achieving the material American dream. In many respects, though, Luhrmann’s re-imagination doesn’t go far enough — it’s a colorful mile long, but about an inch-and-a-half deep. For all the artifice and stylistic overload, certain sequences seem slavishly close in their design and staging to previous big-screen adaptations. Others, crucially, fail to crack the nut of the most difficult hurdle of the novel’s adaptation — its deeply interior qualities.
Purely in terms of its scope, The Great Gatsby offers up enough eye-candy to keep from getting boring. But while there are lots of jaunty uses of “old sport” (Gatsby’s exclamation of choice) and arguably a thin, shimmering ribbon of homoerotic fascination, the film doesn’t dig into the core of what it is that attracts and binds Nick and Gatsby to one another, and their relationships with idealism. There’s the nagging problem, too, of the fact that Daisy is such a spineless cipher and a fairly terrible person — an unworthy object of held obsession for our protagonist. (There’s only one mention of the daughter she shares with Tom, too, and a single brief sighting of the young girl at the film’s end, which is another issue.)
The performances range in quality. Carraway is ostensibly the audience’s guide — both within and without of the world he inhabits, but Maguire, with a perpetual expression of wood-carved wonderment, conveys nothing so much as himbo, go-with-the-flow presence. There’s not enough substance to carve out a contrasting commentary on self-reliance. DiCaprio fares better, by degrees. He’s played a number of wing-ding assholes (Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can comes to mind), and is fast cornering the market on rich, insecure and intensely private men of power (J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes). So he has the affected mannerisms and clenched cheeks (both sets) of besieged and at times nervous entitlement. The problem is that some of his choices lean toward the obvious. A perfect illustration of this is the scene in which Gatsby goads Daisy into telling Tom she never loved him (it’s not enough to have re-won her heart), only to be undone by a blow-up. DiCaprio’s seething anger and resentment is all surface emotion, which, when contrasted with Robert Redford’s icy demeanor in Jack Clayton’s 1974 film version, only highlights its failure to tap into Gatsby’s deep well of neediness. (Warner Bros., PG-13, 143 minutes)