(out of 5)
Baz Luhrmann trains his circus-frenzy eye on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel and comes up with an adaptation that is not in the least bit inspiring, but thankfully does not sink like dead weight the way the 1974 version did either. Tobey Maguire plays the observant Nick Carroway, in this version narrating his tale from a sanatorium where he is essentially recovering from the Roaring Twenties. He tells his doctor of a season he spent renting a tiny house next to a giant mansion on Long Island, trying to quietly enjoy taking part in the era’s economic boom by keeping an office job by day and a quiet life at night, but eventually finding himself seduced by the rollicking festivities going on next door. When he eventually meets the proprietor of the palace, he is introduced to the mysterious millionaire (Leonardo DiCaprio) with an even more mysterious past: no one knows where his money comes from, or why he enjoys throwing such Bacchanalian shows of excess so very often, but they have plenty of theories. It turns out that Nick is of assistance to him in the matter, as Gatsby is still in love with the girl he left behind in World War I, the affable Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is Nick’s cousin and, sadly, married to the brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). These characters, and a few more, get swept up in a romantic melee that is as indulgent as the Jazz Age itself, and this can only spell doom for everyone involved. Luhrmann has spared no expense with his over sized and ambitious project, the parties louder and bigger than is humanly possible, inspired more by Busby Berkeley musicals of the next decade than any kind of accurate research, throwing in an intentionally anachronistic soundtrack (though, unlike Moulin Rouge, not a particularly good one) to both excuse this and make sure the kids understand how relevant these people thought they and their time truly were. Such excesses are easy to overlook and relegate to the ownership of artistic licence; as always, a film adaptation of a book is a reading of that book, not the book itself, so those who are madly in love with Fitzgerald’s prose would do well not to bring any precious expectations into the screening room. That said, there is a sense of bitterness in the great author’s writing that it is impossible to find here: Fitzgerald wrote about the great party of the 1920s as if he knew it would come to a crashing end (which, in 1925, was impressively prophetic of him). What he discovered underneath the glamorous indulgence was not sorrow but banality, while here the filmmakers are far more in love with billowing curtains and a tragic (and quite frankly superficial) sense of romantic melancholy. Were you to forgive this interpretation, and I’m sure many people will, there is also the problem that DiCaprio couldn’t be mysterious if it was bull-whipped out of him, Mulligan gives a flat, atonal performance, and the two of them have about as much chemistry as crushed leaves blowing in the wind. Maguire fares somewhat better except that his role is passive throughout, while Edgerton rules the show with his gregarious turn, Isla Fisher steals a few moments as his trashy mistress, and Elizabeth Debicki outdoes them all with her smooth portrayal of Jordan Baker.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Cinematography by Simon Duggan
Music by Craig Armstrong
Production Design by Catherine Martin
Costume Design by Catherine Martin