Whatever your opinion of Baz Luhrmann’s tendency to revel in excess – epitomized by meticulous production designs, kinetic cinematography and postmodern, old-meets-new soundtracks – you have to give the filmmaker points for audacity in his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece “The Great Gatsby.” Perhaps the greatest American novel, the tragic tale of a mysterious man undone by love and circumstance is writ large (sometimes literally) in this go-for-broke adaptation. Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, a newcomer to Wall Street who enters into a life-changing friendship with his reclusive neighbor, the wealthy but lovesick Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Nick narrates the story in flashback, and acts as our surrogate into the almost alien-like world of the film.
With every swooning, CGI-aided shot and expressionistic setpiece, this visually gonzo take on “The Great Gatsby” strains to capture the materialism that both defined New York City in the 1920s and represented the front for Gatsby’s hidden motivations. The parties held at the titular icon’s mansion bring to life what Fitzgerald described as a “kaleidoscopic carnival,” and the effect is less intoxicating than exhausting.
The look of the movie could be described as overcranked poetry, even compared to the styles of his trendsetting “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!”, and while every moment is at the very least interesting, the lack of dramatic momentum robs from the storytelling potential. When the excess finally subsides to the characters and their conflicts, the tonal shifts suggest a split personality. Despite some liberties taken with the text, the film will likely play better for those who’ve read it beforehand.
A number of the stylistic gambles don’t pay off, but it’s to the film’s credit that virtually no trick goes unused, no stone unturned. “The Great Gatsby” is so fully realized a novel that a perfect adaptation might be an impossible undertaking. Luhrmann makes the most out of what might be considered the text’s music video counterpart. Try to focus less on the countless details than the overwhelming sensations, an approach aided greatly by the imaginative use of 3D. For a movie as critical of materialism as it is indulgent in it, the added dimension feels almost organically necessary.
After his villainous role in “Django Unchained,” DiCaprio gives another one of his finest performances as a man of impossible complexity, and his reservation is only heightened by the extravagance around him. This take on “Gatsby” will certainly offend some purists, but if you’re willing to go along with its craziness, warts and all, it’s a rewarding experiment.
Robert Humanick is a contributing writer for Slant Magazine.