The hype preceding the long-awaited release of "The Great Gatsby" rivals the hoopla surrounding summer blockbusters — Cartier features Gatsby jewelry and Brooks Brothers (naturally) offers a Gatsby line of clothing; there's a video game, and who knows, maybe the toy stores will sell Gatsby action figures. As someone who has taught F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel for many years, therefore, I approached Baz Luhrmann's production with considerable trepidation. The movie actually inspires one of those bad news/good news responses: the bad news is that it is a terrifically excessive adaptation of a great book; the good news is that it is not quite as awful as I had feared.
The familiar story of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-made millionaire and even self-invented person, who dedicates his entire life to winning the love of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), whom he courted in the past, unfolds pretty much in the manner of the novel. But given a work full of visual imagery, with cinematic structures and scenes, the director chooses an odd approach, on the one hand literalizing the narrative, on the other, exaggerating almost every element. While retaining much of Fitzgerald's fine prose, for some reason he also floats many of the sentences out of the screen at the viewer in 3D. Apparently incapable of understanding the role of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the narrator, he turns him into a recovering alcoholic who writes the novel as therapy, which immediately robs the film of the parallels between Nick and the title character.
By translating Fitzgerald into three dimensions, Luhrmann also necessarily magnifies even small moments in a tightly controlled fiction, so that when Gatsby shows his beloved Daisy his wonderful shirts, he throws them at the camera to take advantage of the special effects. All the grand parties at Gatsby's mansion look like production numbers in an old Hollywood musical, with hundreds of people dancing, jumping up and down, diving into the swimming pool, accompanied by a full orchestra playing a weird blend of 1920's jazz and contemporary rap. Even the final party that precedes the film's catastrophe turns almost embarrassingly violent through its display of excessive and entirely fake rage.
Although not always so exaggerated, even the interpretation of characters departs from their meaning in the novel. With his thin, reedy voice, diminutive Tobey Maguire hardly fits the Nick Carraway who generally behaves with gentlemanly restraint; instead of the narrator we must trust, and himself a Gatsby manqué, his tight suits and little bow tie often make him look distressingly like Pee-wee Herman. Although Joel Edgerton occasionally reflects the boorish arrogance of Tom Buchanan, he demonstrates such laborious effort in the part that he seems pathetically unconvincing.
No matter how well his career has developed, Leonardo DiCaprio lacks the necessary innocence, charm, and sheer presence of the central character — he may be Gatsby, but he never seems great. To make the movie work, he must suggest some of Gatsby's mystery, his mythic qualities, his difference from the people who surround him, perhaps even the reason that Nick tells him he is "worth the whole damn bunch put together," but none of that ever emerges.
Despite its many faults, the movie should entertain a great many people, perhaps even those who know and care for the novel, one of the masterpieces of 20th-century American literature. It captures in wildly exaggerated form the revolution in public morality of postwar America, the Jazz Age, the Roaring 20's. It suggests the sense of a corruption so deep and wide that one man — Arnold Rothstein, called Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) in the book — could fix the World Series, when the automobile liberated the sex life of the young by becoming a destination as well as a vehicle, and Prohibition turned the whole populace into a nation of criminals.
It seems passing strange that a brief, tightly controlled masterpiece — in most editions the novel runs less than 200 pages — should inspire such a large, loud, lavish production, but Baz Luhrmann's work often displays what used to be called wretched excess. "The Great Gatsby" joins the ridiculously overpraised "Moulin Rouge" and the spectacular flop "Australia" as another in a list of overcooked turkeys.