3.5 / 5
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, so frequently despised by high-school students (and adults who remember it as a slog) that takes far fewer liberties than Luhrmann's reputation and pre-release publicity would have you believe.
Its best parts have to do with Gatsby himself, and it makes sense that he's played this time by Leonardo Di Caprio, since Jay Gatsby is, after all, the character Titanic's Jack Dawson would have become if he hadn't gone down with the ship. He's a self-made man, and his fulfillment of the American Dream is as suspicious as it is enviable. Di Caprio brings him a surprising amount of sympathy, but it takes a while to get there -- the same goes for the movie as a whole. Its first half is undeniably entertaining, but misses the ennui and tone of detached melancholy that fills the novel.
It's this that is the most disconcerting aspect of The Great Gatsby as reconceived by Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pierce. They have every artistic right to bring their own vision to Gatsby, and while what they've done to it musically may be unnecessary, it's not at all off-putting. The bigger problem is their inability apply a steady new tone: In the end, The Great Gatsby's strengths and weaknesses are the ones inherent in the source material.
On the page, The Great Gatsby is unabashedly literary. Fitzgerald's lush, carefully considered prose makes the novel dazzle (or distract, depending on your view) 88 years later. What he described as "extraordinary and beautiful and simple and exquisitely patterned" is, indeed, that. Luhrmann's film may be beautiful, it is at times extraordinary, but it is far, far from simple.
In Luhrmann's eyes, big and loud are not enough: Everything must be bigger than big, louder than loud. So Gatsby's stately mansion rivals Hogwart's for size and Gothic elaborateness. That's all well and good, but the means by which Luhrmann achieves this epic, oversized vision are less effective. Everything is rendered through complicated, dizzying visual effects that look, well, fake. The colors are too rich, the camera moves too impossibly, and the animation is too obvious.
For the first hour, everything is too over-the-top. The 3-D effects (I saw it in 2-D) are aggressive and relentless, the blending of 21st-century hip-hop and dance music with Jazz Age visuals a bit too self-satisfied. It all feels like a Disney-esque blend of live action and animation, and the actors often barely seem to exist within their digital environments. There's also an odd, uncomfortable comedic tone that, critically, undermines the first meeting between Gatsby and Daisy.
The movie also misses the mark with its decision to underplay the recollection of how Daisy and Gatsby first met. By glossing over this crucial section of the plot, the weight of the central romance and ultimate tragedy are hard to latch on to emotionally.
If it's a little difficult to quite believe Gatsby falling for Daisy all over again, that was, to be fair, always part of Fitzgerald's point: The past can't be revisited, and Daisy has changed in ways Gatsby can't grasp but Nick can. In the novel, that central realization is conveyed by Nick through narratived description; in the movie, Nick recites many of Fitzgerald's words but they lose their impact. As spoken narration, there's no time to linger over the complex ideas being conveyed, and the movie has to resort to underlining its thematic points through thudding dialogue that feels forced and insincere.
Emotionally, The Great Gatsby is just a little too aloof. In part, it's due to the miscasting of Carey Mulligan as Daisy. She's a terrific actress, and by the end she does convey some of Daisy's emotional ambivalence, it's just hard to understand Gatsby's obsession. Mulligan just doesn't make the impression she needs to as a shimmering, fragile, unattainable beauty.
The second, more heavily plotted half of Gatsby works better on film, and a crucial scene between Nick, Tom Buchanan (tremendously well played by Edgerton), Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) and Daisy in an overheated Plaza Hotel is pitch perfect. It's the best sequence in The Great Gatsby, and it's no coincidence that it's the one in which Luhrmann and his hyperactive camera are the most restrained.
Reworked with a completely unneeded framing device, The Great Gatsby works better than it should. Luhrmann's visual and musical rethinking are no less valid than any reconsideration of a classic text, but they overwhelm the more nuanced moments. Luhrmann has tried to redefine The Great Gatsby as an entertainment for the masses, but he can't overcome the basic limitation of the novel: It's a literary and intellectual exercise more than an emotional one. That Luhrmann manages to wring as much emotional satisfaction as he does is pretty impressive.
Viewed May 18, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks
Viewed May 18, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks