There’s one single moment in The Great Gatsby when everything director Baz Luhrmann was going for all comes together — a grandiose vision of the roaring ’20s dreamed up in a gloriously searing 3D tableau: it’s the first appearance of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), shot in medium closeup, fireworks exploding behind him. As the titular character, DiCaprio beams the smile that Nick Carraway describes in the book as having “a quality of eternal reassurance,” a smile that “believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” In slow motion, he nods his head slightly, raises his glass, and you melt.
Then, just as quickly as it arrives, it’s gone, and with it goes all hope that Luhrmann might have at last found the right cocktail of medications to temper his visual ADD. Everything before and after that all-too-brief two minutes of screen time is a migraine-inducing tornado of 3D images, music, color, and light, all edited together with the care and restraint of a hyperactive child. This is hardly news to anyone who has sat through any of Luhrmann’s films prior to Gatsby. But still, who didn’t carry some sliver of hope that the source material — a short, relatively understated novel that mutes the roar of the era and filters the uncertainty of post-WWI, pre-crash America through the desperate affairs of a group of monied WASPs — would rein the Australian auteur in even a little bit?
Alas, Lurhmann is immune to such concerns and instead pushes the film into warp speed. The period details are fantastic, from the clothing to the cars to the housewares, and he creates fabulous set pieces — particularly those surrounding Gatsby’s elaborate house parties — and yet the director gives the audience no time at all to drink them in. As soon as the eyes settle onto an image, Lurhmann snaps his fingers and moves to another, then another, ad infinitum.
The one good decision that the Lurhmann has almost always made in his films is finding lead actors whose work manages to transcend — or at least be immune to — the spectacle surrounding them. Think of Claire Danes as the doomed Juliet, or Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in the otherwise cockamamie Moulin Rouge. Here, Tobey Maguire, a highly underutilized actor of late, comes across best, starkly capturing both the initial wide-eyed optimism of Carraway and, later, its tragic comedown (he narrates the story from a sanitarium with the resigned, grizzled tone of a deposed boxing champion). As the withering Daisy Buchanan, Carey Mulligan, too, manages to find something compelling inside what is an otherwise vapid character.
DiCaprio is the only one of three leads that wobbles. One of the biggest actors under 40 years old working today, you can see a self-consciousness starting to creep in to many of his recent performances. It’s as if he is all-too aware of the scale of the films he is cast in, and overexerts himself accordingly. There are many glimpses of the looseness that helped him shine in his earlier roles — his aforementioned first appearance in Gatsby, his devilish tour for Daisy of the huge mansion that his character calls home — but he too frequently steps into capital A actor mode and no piece of scenery is safe from his bite.
Interestingly, Warner Bros. and Luhrmann chose to release The Great Gatsby in a time of worldwide economic uncertainty. Perhaps they thought that most Americans (and everyone else) today are looking to marvel over the glitz and ostentation of those doing better than us. (If so, the film’s Jay Z-produced soundtrack was a savvy decision — pop superstars are who much of world looks to for that kind of aspirational worship.) Anyone complaining that the core of Fitzgerald’s book is lost amid the tumult might be missing the point entirely. The tragedy and romance of the story are still here, but more importantly, they’re wrapped up in gold leaf paper, tied with a bow made of velvet, and stuck with a price tag of $127 million.