To be fair, adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" for film (as has been done five times before), has always presented a challenge.
The 1925 novel about a flashy, new-money mystery man vying for the love of an old-money snob's wife has always been remembered as much for Fitzgerald's generous writing as it has for its characters or plot. Baz Luhrmann, a filmmaker known for his post-modern pastiche of old stories and texts, gets torn between honoring the novel's literary genius and revamping it in his own gaudy style.
He would have been better off departing entirely from Fitzergald's earnestness, and let his film play out like the shiny, superficial love tragedy it so desperately wants to be. Rather he tries – and fails – to have it both ways.
"The Great Gatsby" stays true to the novel's plot: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempts to sweep Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) away from her piggish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), as retold by Gatsby's neighbor and Daisy's cousin, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Luhrmann uses Nick's narration to anchor his characteristic flourishes – 3-D animation; frantic pacing; a clever, chronistic collage of a soundtrack. But the film depends too much on Carraway telling us what's going on, and it ultimately belabors Fitzgerald's celebrated story, rather than elevate it.
That's not to say Luhrmann's film is all bad. It's enchanting when it takes its longest breaths from Carraway's narration. Luhrmann has fun with his zippy exposition, but slows down once the scene has been set. Tom and Nick's venture into the city where Nick meets Tom's mistress is particularly energetic. Daisy's and Jay's reunion, a meeting set up by Nick, is also delightful.
And there are plenty of "wow" moments in "The Great Gatsby" including the initial, epic reveal of the mysterious Gatsby and the horrific car crash that seals his fate. But "The Great Gatsby" struggles in finding the profound meaning underlying these moments. It's a weakness highlighted by an alteration made to one of the film's early lines. In his opening, Fitzgerald wrote:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
The advice Luhrmann's Carraway received from his father is far more generic: to always look for the good in people. And from that moment on, in all its pomp, Luhrmann misses Fitzgerald's point.
The actors do a fine job of bringing the famed characters to life, particularly when the film gives them the space to do so. Maguire's big, dopey eyes carry Nick's inescapable alienation, despite his intimate involvement in the story at hand. DiCaprio plays Gatsby with a charm that veers into neurotic – allowing him to waver between hero and anti-hero, one to be admired and one to be pitied. Mulligan brightens her usually smoldering demeanor to play the effusive Daisy, and Edgerton is the embodiment of Tom's brutish arrogance. Isla Fisher surprises as the rambunctious sex pot Myrtle Wilson, and Elizabeth Debicki stands out as the refined golfer Jordan Baker.
The lively soundtrack animates some of the film's best scenes (Jay-Z, listed as an executive producer, was not shy about sprinkling his old hits among the soundtrack's new offerings). The 3-D pops in some places but recedes in others – a fireworks spectacle or a drug-induced epiphany can benefit from the extra dimension, but an intimate love scene has no use for it.
"The Great Gatsby" disappoints not just as a Fitzgerald adaptation, but as a Luhrmann film. If Luhrmann had been willing to jump a little farther and take risks beyond 3-D animation and Beyonce remixes, he might have created something as innovative as "Romeo+Juliet" or appealing as "Moulin Rouge."
Luhrmann could have delivered an eye-popping, convention-busting love story if he had abandoned placating Fitzgerald purists altogether. Instead, he tries to serve two masters: the book and his own aesthetic. He doesn't need Nick Carraway to scold him for being so greedy.