The official title of Baz Luhrmann’s new film is not Gatsby! or The Great Gatsby 3D or even Baz Luhrmann Presents The Great Gatsby, but it could very well be any one of these things.
The best film adaptations of novels help us see and experience the book in a new way. Luhrmann’s gorgeous, gaudy, overstuffed Gatsby merely answers one question: What would The Great Gatsby look like as a Baz Luhrmann film?
Well, it would look a whole lot like his Moulin Rouge, mixed with a generous dose of his Romeo + Juliet (Leo is even in it!) and a dab of his Strictly Ballroom.
So the question remains: Is Luhrmann’s gonzo, over-saturated cinematic world actually a good fit for Gatsby? Yes and no. Like Jay Gatsby, Luhrmann sure knows how to throw a party. And the parties here are decadent, eye-popping affairs—with champagne flowing and roaming acrobats and giddy flappers mixing in with the society swells (all in 3D! It’s like you are there!). It’s the rest of the film that falls a little flat. All of this carefully orchestrated stimulation can be a bit stultifying—the film doesn't give us any room to breathe. (And the hip-hop infused soundtrack, while catchy, makes no sense. It's just another Luhrmann tic.)
DiCaprio is no longer the beautiful golden boy of Titanic or Romeo and Juliet (when co-star John Leguizamo famously called him “that talented little shit”) but his slightly dissipated good looks actually work well here. Gatsby, of course, desperately wants to recreate his own past—or at least, his myth of his own past—and DiCaprio’s faux old money affections (cheerfully calling everyone “old sport”) have a proper edge of paranoia and sadness.
Carey Mulligan does what she can with the role of Daisy Buchanan, who, even in Fitzgerald’s novel, is less a character than a fantasy projection. Mulligan plays her that way—a woman used to being admired and coddled and projected upon.
It’s poor Tobey Maguire, stuck in the role of the wide-eyed, neutered (here at least) Nick Carraway, who doesn’t fare quite as well. All he does, basically, is fanboy over Gatsby. It’s slightly embarrassing. (I loved however, Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan Baker. She’s so cool and fabulous and louche she would make Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary blush.)
The Great Gatsby is certainly worth seeing, but I can’t heartily recommend it. In America, Fitzgerald’s novel—with its tragic but appealing characters and its big ideas about American reinvention and optimism—is considered nearly perfect. Luhrmann apparently sees it as an excellent backdrop for his work.