Taking on The Great Gatsby is an unenviable task. In theory, it should be perfectly adaptable; it’s story-driven, but not terribly so, it takes place very prominently in a time and place that make it a great opportunity for costume and set designers, and it’s just so good. Certainly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s language can be replicated with some good direction, the distinct characters brought to life with good actors, the images all captured.
Except that for some reason, it isn’t. Fitzgerald’s language is too rich and the images are so exclusively literary that replicating it on film turns magic into nonsense. If you have seen Robert Redford try it in the 1974 adaptation, you know this. Pretty costumes and lavish sets alone can’t make a movie, and Nick Carraway’s narration reads much better than it sounds. As such, past Gatsby adaptations have all failed.
Thinking about contemporary directors, there are two that believe fervently in the power of costuming and set design to make films, both quite divisive: Baz Luhrmann and Joe Wright. Wright took the on unenviable task of adapting Anna Karenina, so Luhrmann gets Gatsby.
It takes a few minutes until you realize that The Great Gatsby is a Baz Luhrmann film, in italics. Every preconceived notion of what that means makes itself obvious very quickly, from the digital camera’s swoops up and down the Empire State Building to its zooms from the fictional East Egg across to Manhattan and from the beautiful costumes to the ridiculously extravagant and extravagantly ridiculous sets, he has made his mark.
The film begins with a black and white Warner Brothers logo slowly colorizing, and that image could serve as the directorial mission statement, a way of making way for the new but staying rooted in the old. And indeed, Luhrmann takes steps to “modernize” Gatsby. The story is still set in the Jazz Age, of course, but the anachronistic music—heavy on Jay-Z and his side projects—and the digital landscapes threaten to pull us into some form of modern day fantasy revision. The desire to have it both ways is one of the film’s biggest strengths but also one of its biggest weaknesses. The digital aesthetics allow costumes and sets to dazzle, and the emphasis becomes on turning one of the all-time great novels into its own cinematic experience. At the same time, the story is firmly rooted in its time, so not too much can be done, so while Luhrmann wisely introduces Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as a patient in a sanitarium who is told to write about Gatsby, that doesn’t change the fact that his written narration is still being spoken to us, and while superimposing Fitzgerald’s words onto the screen reminds us that what we hear is being written by Carraway, not told, that doesn’t change the fact that it also validates the novelistic nature of the story. We still have to hear those words, and it’s hard not to think about how much better they are just to read. His narration aside, Tobey Maguire gets a pass for his portrayal.
The show-stealer, however, is Mr. DiCaprio, whose fast-talking exudes confidence and success without being uninviting. Just as impressive are his tender and nervous moments around Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and his convincing but manipulative conversations with Nick. DiCaprio puts the film on his shoulders and runs with it, delivering his finest performance to date and making Gatsby come faithfully alive. The script doesn’t quite allow the air of mystery around him that other characters constantly reference, but when you see DiCaprio’s turns, he wills the mist to surround him. Only an essential but ill-advised reach out to the green light on Daisy’s dock can slow him down.
Mulligan’s Daisy is not quite as successful; her classy-but-snarky take is a unique interpretation of the character, but as the relationships begin to unravel in the film’s final act, it also leads to an end that seems strangely out of character. Daisy is more than a little shallow—the final act depends on it—but Mulligan’s Daisy ignores most of her vices and emphasizes her desirability. For most of the film, it’s an interesting take on the character, one that almost pulls the story in worthy new directions, but it is not quite strong enough to do so, and so in the end it doesn’t seem to be quite confident enough. Elizabeth Debicki, meanwhile, is stripped of a potential break-out performance as Jordan Baker is reduced to a non-entity, her character never finding a place or adding much substance to an otherwise assured film.
Some scenes, of course, work better than others. Nick and Gatsby take a drive into New York City in one of the film’s best sequences: DiCaprio convinces the viewer, Lurhmann shows off his vision, and a palpable sense of mystery begins to form. When Gatsby and Daisy first meet, in Nick’s flower-covered living room, and then embark on a tour of Gatsby’s mansion to throw linens around and cast their gaze at every wonderful, expensive work to Lana Del Rey’s “Young & Beautiful,” the film reaches the majestic heights that it aims for in almost every scene. Others, a small party at the house of Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, plays more like a parody of the film than a part of it, and the introductory party scene encroaches its limits a bit too often. Striking the right tone can be seen as a new challenge in every scene, so the film runs a bit like a roller-coaster, but its highs are high enough to make you think that the whole film is the adaptation that Gatsby has always deserved.
In the end, a few scenes fall flat and a few conceits don’t entirely work for Luhrmann’s film to be exactly the Gatsby we have always dreamed of, but it’s a very respectable one. The novel’s themes make it onto the screen and Gatsby gets the portrayal he needs, but Luhrmann can’t quite break free of the novel’s colossal grasp. Sometimes he wants to make the film entirely his own, other times he’s reeled in by expectations. As such, the strength of Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is indebted heavily to the strength of Fitzgerald’s source, but that doesn’t take away its pleasures, even if it does showcase the shortcomings.