A scant year after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby was published, it was made into a film. Since then, it has been turned into stage plays, other films, an opera, a graphic novel, and even video games. Baz Luhrmann’s 3D film of The Great Gatsby was originally supposed to have come out last Christmas, and while it would seem to be out of place now amid the summer blockbusters, it proves to be as eye-popping a piece of spectacle as any science-fiction extravaganza. The movie is an exercise in sensory overload. It deluges us with so much beauty that it becomes too much of everything. It’s completely ridiculous. It’s pretty cool too.
Luhrmann and his writing partner Craig Pearce install a framing device around the novel’s story: As the movie opens, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is drying out in a sanitarium, dealing with his alcoholism by keeping a journal. There, he writes about his wild and ill-fated summer of 1922, when he witnessed his married cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) being pursued by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious businessman from her past who throws New York’s most lavish parties.
You’ll easily detect the touch of the director of Moulin Rouge! here, in the scenes of revelry that are somehow frenetically edited and yet scrupulously composed. Whole rooms are decorated one color, while actors’ costumes are heavily color-coded as well. Cinematographer Simon Duggan turns in the performance of his life capturing the opulence and exuberance of Jazz Age New York. Speaking of jazz, the soundtrack combines period music with defiantly anachronistic songs from Jay-Z, Sia, and The xx. (Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” makes a breathtaking backdrop to the scene in which Gatsby shows Daisy his shirts.) The main players are given entrances that actors would kill for — our first clear look at Gatsby is accompanied by a fireworks show and a full orchestra playing Rhapsody in Blue. It’s all blatantly artificial and theatrical, yet it’s more alive than more realistic versions of Gatsby.
One reason for that is that Luhrmann doesn’t forget his actors amid the Art Deco décor. DiCaprio’s romantic ardor here is a marked contrast to the grim, tormented types he’s played recently, while Mulligan pulls off the near-miraculous feat of making Daisy interesting, a believer in Gatsby’s romantic vision who’s too weak to break free of her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, properly shrewd and coarse). Nor does Luhrmann forget to mix the spectacle with comedy, as when Gatsby’s awkward reunion with Daisy leaves Nick as a third wheel.
Let the Fitzgerald purists cavil about how the movie flattens out the great book’s themes (which it assuredly does). Luhrmann turns this American literary classic into very much his own creation, a plush celebration of doomed, tragic love, swathed in rich fabrics and lit up in neon. Because of him, this ravishing revision of The Great Gatsby is the one that stands most proudly on its own.
The Great Gatsby
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Rated PG-13.