“A sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. This applies to filmmakers as well.
Australian dynamo and short-attention-span enthusiast Baz Luhrmann never found anything he couldn’t make tacky, so after the Hawaiian-shirt clad hash he made out of Romeo and Juliet and the pillaging of 30 years of pop culture via the massacred song snippets in Moulin Rouge comes his bizarre take on The Great Gatsby. It’s a chintzy, overlong muddle based on a book that’s not particularly suited to movies, and the film is a cluttered, 3-D muddle in which Leonardo DiCaprio happens to be amazing.
We all went to high school, and if I remember correctly, this was the one book even dumb kids enjoyed reading. Told through the eyes of sad-sack, limp-dicked narrator Nick Carraway, it’s the tale of a self-made millionaire who comes back from World War I and devotes his life to wooing the girl of his dreams. Problem is, she’s an illusion and a bit of a drip, so no matter how ardently Jay Gatsby longs for Daisy Buchanan and keeps reaching out for that green light, she is entirely unworthy of his attention and turns out to be an awful human being who inadvertently gets him murdered. Sorry for the spoilers, high school dropouts.
I was re-reading The Great Gatsby just the other day, and here is a question I never once asked: Who is Nick telling the story to? Well, we finally have an answer to this question nobody wondered about. Luhrmann concocts a rather confounding framing device in which Nick is at a hospital, diagnosed with “morbid alcoholism, anxiety and fits of rage,” and he’s typing out the story as part of his therapy. The words fly from the typewriter in large blocks of text that sail into the audience in 3-D because this is a literary adaptation, after all. Might as well have words shooting out of the screen at your head.
Nick is played by Tobey Maguire, a young actor I once quite enjoyed but has become rather insufferable. He carries the bulk of Gatsby’s narration and is stuck reciting some of Fitzgerald’s most eloquent passages in a voice that sounds like a water-logged bath toy. Carraway is the literary model of a passive protagonist, so in this case, we’ve just got Maguire sitting around in the middle of every scene, not saying anything, in a straw boater hat and looking incredibly uncomfortable.
As this is a Baz Luhrmann film, the entire 1920s jazz age is scored to Jay-Z. Every party in the Hamptons looks like a live MTV report from Spring Break, all bumping and grinding, and the anachronisms clang like a broken church bell.
But then arrives Jay Gatsby. Much has been made of the odd trivia that, at 38 years old, DiCaprio is exactly the same age Robert Redford was when he played the role in Jack Clayton and Francis Ford Coppola’s snoozy 1974 adaptation. Leo looks half that age, if even. He’s a child star stuck in perpetual pubescence, and yet his entrance here is as magnificent as the performance.
Luhrmann drops the Top 40 and cues up Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with DiCaprio granted a full reveal at the crescendo, staring straight into the camera and extending a cocktail to the audience as a dazzling array of fireworks explode behind his head. Not a lot of stars could recover from that kind of presentation, but DiCaprio works wonders in a movie that is otherwise distracted by small, shiny objects.
He’s hooked on affectations, a millionaire pretender to the throne who came from nothing and thus always seems to be sinking in quicksand when confronted with high society’s betters. DiCaprio foregrounds Gatsby’s aching, awful neediness, calling everybody “old sport” as a life raft. He’s putting on airs to stay afloat, with charm and magnetism to burn. This is a great performance.
Which is too bad because everything else about the film is quite awful. Luhrmann seems more interested in the parties than the characters, and Carey Mulligan barely registers as a dimwit Daisy. The all-seeing eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are a crutch for God, witnessing some unintentionally hilarious misdeeds.
Luhrmann can’t leave well enough alone. The Great Gatsby already ends with one of the most beautiful passages ever written in the history of the English language. So, after hurling all that text in your face, he’s got to go one better and add an extra scene afterward—which feels like somebody just spray painted all over the “Mona Lisa.”