Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a failure that should have at least been a magnificent mistake, a risky endeavor that showed a daring intent even if its brash vision didn’t quite succeed. Instead, the movie leaves you cold and weary and vaguely disgusted, like you’ve just spent a night of debauchery at Gatsby’s mansion, and now the sun is up, and it’s time to fish the cigarette butts and champagne bottles out of the pool.
In theory, turning F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of jazz age disillusionment into some sort of over-the-top commentary on class warfare and the lives of the rich and careless could have worked; the novel’s themes of excess and delusion are ripe for visual reinvention. But this new Gatsby is nothing more than a garish cartoon. Even when it works — the grand party scene shown in the trailer is truly a spectacle worth seeing — the visuals are somehow less exhilarating than you imagine they will be, just Moulin Rouge retreads with Long Island and Manhattan standing in for Paris. Creatively, it’s ground Luhrmann has already tread. Nor did any of the material cry out to be shot in 3D, which proves to be more of a distraction than an enhancement.
Anyone who survived high school English will know the story, how narrator and budding bonds salesman Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) rents a little cottage on West Egg, Long Island — haven for the nouveau riche — next door to the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio). Gatsby befriends him and soon enough reveals a secret about his past involving Nick’s lovely cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives across the water on old-moneyed East Egg with her brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Everyone drinks a lot and gossips and carries on various unsavory affairs, until the seemingly eternal summer ends in chaos and death.
Luhrmann and longtime collaborator Chris Pearce, who also wrote the screenplays for Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Strictly Ballroom, still use Nick as narrator, but they made the curious decision to frame the film with Nick in a sanitarium, urged by his doctor to write down his story. I suppose this is so Pearce can use Fitzgerald’s dazzling prose in the movie — the words sometimes float right out onto the screen — but the implication that the events involving Gatsby caused Nick, by far the most rational of the bunch, to have some sort of nervous breakdown undermines Fitzgerald’s vision. It also appears to be a cheap way to make use of some magical 3D snow, since the rest of the movie takes place in a warmer season.
Otherwise the screenplay sticks fairly close to its original source, right down to the faded billboard of glasses overlooking the ashheaps that separate less fashionable West Egg from glittering Manhattan. But while the novel is trim, the movie feels bloated, with a few too many scenes of speeding cars careening through the streets and pointless musical segues meant to reflect the carefree attitude of the time. Like he did in Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann marries modern music to his stylized setting, but this time the union doesn’t work. Using hip-hop instead of the classics of the time isn’t cutting edge anymore, and it strands the film without a significant musical moment. Remember The Cardigans’ pop magic Lovefool or Des’ree’s dreamy Kissing You from Romeo + Juliet, and you’ll know what I mean.
Perhaps the worst thing about all of this is that Gatsby’s cast is terrific, from DiCaprio as the obsessed self-made millionaire to Mulligan as the shallow Daisy to Jason Clarke of Zero Dark Thirty as the unfortunate George Wilson, whose destiny is wrapped up with Gatsby’s own. Gatsby’s “old sport” sounds odd coming from DiCaprio’s mouth, but then, Jay Gatsby wasn’t born saying it, either. In the end, though, Gatsby’s style overcomes its substance. Effects like the gaudy fireworks that explode when we first see the elusive millionaire overwhelm the soul of this story, the pursuit of the American dream lost to bright lights, forgettable music and special effects.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke.
Director: Baz Luhrmann.
Screenwriters: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce. Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Producers: Lucy Fisher, Catherine Knapman, Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Douglas Wick.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 143 minutes. some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. Playing at area theaters.