Film Reviews

In Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby, a Different Brand of Great

There's a scene in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby in which Leonardo DiCaprio's hyper-rich, super-awkward Jay Gatsby takes it upon himself to redecorate the bachelor pad of his less-prosperous friend, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Gatsby's old flame, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), is coming to Nick's house for tea. Eager to impress her, Gatsby has brought in boughs draped with explosive white flowers, macaroons in every color of the paintbox and tiered cakes coated with silky, pastel-hued frosting straight out of Marie Antoinette's court. "You think it's too much?" he asks Nick, anxiously. Nick offers the polite answer: "I think it's what you want."

The Great Gatsby is in the same way both too much and what Luhrmann wants, less a movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel than a movie version of Jay Gatsby himself. It's an expressionist work, a story reinvented to the point of total self-invention, polished to a handsome sheen and possessing no class or taste beyond the kind you can buy. And those are the reasons to love it.

Outraged Gatsbyites took to the Twitterverse last May, just after the release of the gaudy first trailer, a nutball extravaganza of flappers in beaded Miu Miu dresses losing their shit to Jay-Z and Kanye West's hypnotic and decadent "No Church in the Wild." How dare Luhrmann desecrate F. Scott's delicate classic! More recently, the novel has risen to the top of the bestseller list — people who have never read it now want to, thanks to all the movie hype. That should be great, right?

Not for everybody: Last week, in The New York Times, an employee of groovy-chic SoHo bookstore McNally Jackson expressed dismay that the masses were buying the movie tie-in, not the edition with Francis Cugat's original blue-toned, weeping-eye cover art, the only one McNally Jackson sells. Apparently, Fitzgerald's beautiful, ferocious novel is only for those who have been blessed with special sophistication and discernment.

Luhrmann will have none of that. His Gatsby — rendered in 3-D, no less — is garish and over the top. Like all his movies (even the lovely ones, like William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet), self-consciousness and silliness creep in through its cracks. It seldom, if ever, captures that fierce delicacy of feeling Fitzgerald packed into every sentence. And it's not an actors' movie. DiCaprio has some moving moments — when he sees his beloved Daisy and gets lovestruck all over again, his face momentarily takes on the bewildered softness he had as a child actor.

But mostly the performers look lost in Luhrmann's extravagant panorama. They deliver their lines (which are generally drawn straight from Fitzgerald) with care and respect, like birds entrusted with very special eggs. You sometimes get the feeling they're afraid to sully them with anything so presumptuous as interpretation.

No, this Gatsby is a mess. But it moves, it breathes, it has color on its side, and because of that, it feels far more respectful to the source material than Jack Clayton's dreary 1974 number, in which Mia Farrow and Robert Redford drifted about wanly in overpressed linen and droopy chiffon. Luhrmann (who cowrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce,) hasn't taken too many liberties with the basics: Maguire's Nick Carraway, the story's narrator and conscience, has just moved from Chicago to New York, specifically to a tony part of Long Island where his delicate wildflower cousin, Daisy, lives with her pompous, cheating husband, Tom (Zero Dark Thirty's Joel Edgerton). Across the bay from Daisy's palatial spread — the grounds dotted with gardens that look like dishes of candy — is an even bigger mansion. That one, gleaming like the castle in the opening of The Wonderful World of Disney, is owned by mystery figure Jay Gatsby, a man known for his decadent, costly parties, even though he doesn't like parties at all: He's just hoping to lure his old love Daisy across the bay, which, with Carraway's help, he eventually does, opening the door wide to tragedy.

Luhrmann doesn't do so well with that. The movie's last section, which is so tense in the novel, is strained and awkward here. But the energy of what comes before counts for something. Though Fitzgerald couldn't have known it, he wrote a scene tailor-made for 3-D, the one in which Gatsby rummages through his collection of brilliantly colored silk shirts and tosses one after another toward his lady love. In Luhrmann's vision, they float down around Daisy like polychrome snowflakes. Luhrmann has also made some dashing and witty casting choices — for example, giving the role of shifty gangster Meyer Wolfsheim to Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, whose facial hair actually suggests a wolf.

And then there are the parties. And that's what you really wanted to know about, right? Though you maybe didn't want to admit it. Luhrmann, director of photography Simon Duggan, and production and costume designer Catherine Martin don't skimp on the spectacle: Confetti falls like silver rain. Champagne glasses glint in the light. Garters, teddies and fringe shimmy everywhere. Many of the costumes come courtesy of Miu Miu and Prada, and they include swishy silk kimonos and sheer dresses whose beading looks as if it were sewn onto air. It's all so fake. It should all be so horrible. But really, all Luhrmann has done is build a crazy art deco Taj Mahal to the glory of The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Luhrmann is a faker but not a phony. Fitzgerald knew the difference. Can we see it, too?

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.