Although I have no idea where to check such statistics, I am willing to bet no movie in history has had a greater budget entry for martini glasses than Baz Luhrmann’s take on “The Great Gatsby.” During the many party scenes, three to four martini glasses litter every horizontal surface in Jay Gatsby’s manor (which appears to have more rooms than the Pentagon). His guests apparently discard martini glasses the way we lower classes discard Hershey’s Kiss wrappers.
Luhrmann’s trademark is the cinema of giddy excess, and “Gatsby,” with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, is Luhrmann’s true follow-up to 2001’s extravagant “Moulin Rouge.” Aside from the boggling expanse of martini glasses, several square miles of confetti get tossed at Gatsby’s parties, and the number of people dancing the Charleston on his lawn may dwarf the population of Charleston itself. Gatsby’s parties are of a scale that only Luhrmann can envision, and he fills all three dimensions with frantic fun.
No one would doubt Luhrmann’s ability to bring the glamorous first half of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous, and famously literary, novel to the screen. The parties and the champagne and the flappers must have beckoned to him, crying, “Choreograph us to a fusion of jazz and hip hop in a way to make audiences forget MTV stopped showing music videos years ago.”
The question was whether Luhrmann could transition to the somber second half of the story, where domestic melodrama leads to a brutal revenge play. Luhrmann, who adapted the script with longtime collaborator Craig Pearce, represents Fitzgerald’s see-saw battle with optimism and cynicism decently enough, but you hear the transmission grind as he changes gears.
For those who ignored their high school reading list, “Gatsby” is the story of Idealistic Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who moves to New York to try his hand in the bond trade. By dumb luck, he rents a cottage among the mansions of Long Island’s north shore, and is drawn inexorably into the orbit of his enigmatic and fabulously wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby. “Young men don’t just drift coolly out of nowhere and build palaces on Long Island,” Nick says.
Nick soon learns that his own cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), is the object of Gatsby’s yearnings. Although her home is directly across the bay (with the famous, beckoning green light at the end of her dock), Gatsby has not seen her in five years, not since she married the brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
After Tom introduces Nick to his mistress (Isla Fisher), Nick sees no reason not to bring Gatsby and Daisy together. He doesn’t see that the couple’s shared capacity for self-delusion will lead to disaster.
This is the fourth film version of “Gatsby.” The first appeared in 1926, just a year after the novel’s publication. Like most silent films, it has crumbled into dust and vanished from time. The next version, from 1949, is not widely available, but most viewers report Alan Ladd is excellent as Gatsby.
The best-known version, from 1974, stars Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as Gatsby and Daisy, and was scripted by Francis Ford Coppola. Despite the pedigree, the film holds Fitzgerald’s text in such reverence that the cast calcifies before your very eyes.
Luhrmann must have looked at the 1974 version and told his crew, “Whatever they did, we’ll do the opposite.” Where the Redford movie crawled, this one crackles. Luhrmann and his key technicians – cinematographer Simon Duggan, production and costume designer Catherine Martin and visual effects supervisor Chris Godfrey – whip up a fantasy version of the Roaring Twenties, where bootleg champagne flows easily, and flappers shimmer in their tight, fringed dresses.
The camera flies over the imaginary landscape of Gatsby’s realm with Manhattan glowing gold in the distance, the glittering ballroom of the East Coast. So much of the scenery has been composited inside computers, and the colors are so bright and garish, that this “Gatsby” is only a few steps away from the Pixar version, which is a tantalizing thought.
Jay Z supervises the music, and he takes the project seriously enough to use his real name, Shawn Carter, in the credits. The blending of two styles of music across a span of nine decades could have been a discordant distraction. Instead, the songs fit beautifully with Luhrmann’s intent, from a Jazz Age take on Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” to a pumped up rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Plus, the world gets that Jay Z/Sophie Tucker mashup it never knew it wanted.
Luhrmann borrows liberally from “Citizen Kane’s” vast visual warehouse, which makes sense since Fitzgerald’s novel certainly influenced Orson Welles’ masterpiece. Gatsby’s home, now a castle instead of a mansion, recalls Kane’s Xanadu. The piano mentioned in the book becomes a massive pipe organ that might have been appropriated from a European cathedral while some bishop wasn’t looking.
This is not to say Luhrmann disrespects Fitzgerald’s text. Most of the dialogue is straight from the novel. The film’s greatest departure is not from the story, but from the framework. Nick Carraway’s narration begins as a dialogue with his therapist in a sanitarium back West, where he is being treated for depression and “morbid alcoholism.”
Nick further becomes Fitzgerald’s alter ego when the therapist suggests he write his recollections of that fateful summer in the East, and he goes on to complete a novel named “The Great Gatsby,” which carries the conceit too far.
Except that Maguire comes across as too mannered, the cast is just about perfect. Edgerton is the very image of Tom Buchanan, and Mulligan shines as the idol who is less than she appears. Anyone who can make the line: “I have never seen such beautiful shirts” sound tragic deserves Oscar consideration.
For one of today’s leading matinee idols, DiCaprio is often miscast (“The Gangs of New York,” “Shutter Island”), and sometimes he emotes so hard the performance shows (once again, “Shutter Island”). That approach is ideal for this character. Jay Gatsby is a man playing a role, but not as convincingly as he thinks. Whether by intent or by accident, Gatsby ranks among DiCaprio’s best performances.
As the warning goes, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is no substitute for the novel, but it is way more entertaining than reading the CliffsNotes. The camerawork is so jittery and the world so candy-coated, particularly during the first half, it becomes difficult to take the movie seriously, and, at some point, you want to take “The Great Gatsby” seriously.
Where the Redford version was so stultifying it robbed Fitzgerald’s novel of its energy, Luhrmann’s playfulness cheats it of its import. The correct cinematic approach to “Gatsby” probably will be found smack in the middle. Maybe we’ll see it in another 40 years.
“The Great Gatsby”
Rated PG-13: for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes
Who's in it: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
What it's about: In 1920s Long Island, a naïve Midwesterner (Maguire) gets pulled into the world of his enigmatic and wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), and Gatsby’s quest to regain the woman he once loved (Mulligan).
Verdict: Director Baz Luhrmann applies his “Moulin Rouge” approach to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic, and the results are as uneven as expected. Luhrmann and his technical wizards whip up a fantasy version of the Roaring Twenties with eye-popping effects (see it in 3-D) and a jazz/hip hop soundscape masterminded by Jay Z. But the somber second half struggles to match with the glamorous first half, where Gatsby’s extravagant parties are staged like music videos. The cast is just about perfect, with Mulligan and Edgerton ideal as Daisy and Tom Buchanan, and DiCaprio delivering one of his best performances.