The best thing about Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated/much-dreaded The Great Gatsby is that, for all its computer-generated whoosh and overbroad acting, it is unmistakably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That is no small deal. The last major adaptation, in which a recessive Robert Redford reunited with a blank Mia Farrow, substituted deadly Brit tastefulness for Fitzgerald’s polished American vulgarity—the polish (like the characters’ opulence) a façade through which we can discern the baseness of the Jazz Age high life. No one can say that the Aussie hot dog Luhrmann lacks the requisite vulgarity. And no one can say that he tries to upstage his source. In the movie’s inane framing device, Nick Carraway is in rehab typing a memoir overseen by an eager shrink. As Fitzgerald’s words emerge from Nick’s typewriter, they sometimes drift across the screen (into our faces, if you see the film in 3-D)—a ding-a-ling gimmick, but a reminder, at least, that there is a greater Gatsby elsewhere. The movie is juvenile but could have been so much worse.
You know from the outset you’re in for an onslaught. The camera hurtles (or what passes for it in CGI) across the water toward Disney’s turreted Magic Castle, which turns out to be the house of the mysterious Jay Gatsby. A short time later, Nick tells us that his cousin, Daisy, and her trust-fund-fatted, polo-playing husband, Tom Buchanan, live directly across the water from Gatsby, at which point the camera CGI-hurtles over to the Buchanans’ place—almost instantly traversing a gap that ought to remain fixed, both literally and metaphorically. It’s hard for a man like Luhrmann, whose idea of cinema is rooted in instant gratification (you want it, you got it!), to grasp, let alone translate, the Gatsbyesque notion of longing to be somewhere you can’t be. He’s the anti–Terrence Malick: He makes miracles cheap. Luhrmann has exhausted us well before our first sight of Gatsby.
As Nick, Tobey Maguire has the same dazed-ingenue affect in both his drunken-past and sober-present incarnations, but Maguire can be sweet without undue sickliness. Back in the heady days of Prohibition, young Nick rents the dilapidated house next to Gatsby’s manse (Shrink: “So he was your neighbor?” Nick: “My neighbor … yeah”) and spies the man himself in the distance, on a dock, looking almost, Nick says, as if he’s trying to reach across the water. Then we see Leonardo DiCaprio with his arm stuck out, reaching … reaching … It’s not Fitzgerald’s subtlest moment and is clunkier onscreen. Can any actor overcome a first shot like that? Talk about a reach.
DiCaprio is, on balance, a good Gatsby. It helps that most of us like him so much that we root for him to hit the right notes. And if he does, as actors say, “indicate,” what choice do you have in a Baz Luhrmann picture? You signal desperately while trying not to look desperate. DiCaprio has a too-nice tan and looks obscenely healthy, but he’s not playing a wasted, reclusive Gatsby: He’s a man still aglow with youthful dreams, convinced that by adding “old sport” to the end of his sentences he’ll seem to the manner born. (He sounds like someone doing a bad JFK impersonation.) DiCaprio was the most grown-up-seeming of child actors and is now the most boyish of grown-ups. So it’s easy to believe that his Gatsby could attach no importance to the five years that have passed since he last saw his treasured Daisy, back when he was a poor boy. It’s easy to believe he thinks hope—plus his new wealth—can vanquish time.
It’s less easy to believe that Carey Mulligan can embody Daisy. I know: Who could embody American literature’s ultimate prize, its Great White Whale transformed into a beautiful woman who can only be landed after a suitable fortune is amassed? She’s a projection—and at the same time a mistreated, discombobulated woman who shows signs of not wanting to bear the absurd weight of a man’s dreams. I suspect we all have our Daisys in life but could find no consensus if allowed to vote on an actress. A couple of distant possibilities: Peter Bogdanovich recognized a Texas version of Daisy in Jacy in The Last Picture Show—and the poor dreamer launched himself on a Fitzgerald-like road to ruin by leaving his wife for the 21-year-old Cybill Shepherd and installing her in a mansion in Bel Air. Gwyneth Paltrow, despite her current Goopy associations, still radiates a Daisy-like relish for being envied and desired—along with an obvious (even neurotic) attachment to privilege.
Mulligan might turn out to be a better actress than Shepherd and Paltrow put together, but she’s down-to-earth pretty (a tad mousy) rather than unattainably glamorous. She does well in Daisy’s most challenging scene, in which she has to oscillate between the desires of two impossible men, the monomaniacal Gatsby and the overentitled Buchanan. But it’s possible to forget she’s in the movie. She’s upstaged by an Australian actress named Elizabeth Debicki, who, as Jordan Baker, is all sleek insouciance, an archetypal New Yorker flapper cartoon brought to vivid life. You could project on Debicki till the cows come home.
She slinks off with the movie, but she doesn’t have much competition. Apart from DiCaprio and Maguire, the chief actors are Brits or Aussies and hit their American notes, like their r’s, harrrrd. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is about on the same level as Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley in Titanic, Leo’s last rich rival for his soul mate’s affection. But shouldn’t the Fitzgerald version have a bit more nuance than the Cameron knockoff? Jason Clarke, who plays the mechanic Wilson as if competing with clowns and elephants for the audience’s attention, will be lucky if no one recognizes him from his riveting turn as the increasingly tortured torturer in Zero Dark Thirty. As the doomed Myrtle, Isla Fisher suggests Bernadette Peters in dire need of a showstopping Broadway ballad.
You can find fault with virtually every scene in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby—and yet in spite of all the wrong notes, Fitzgerald (and the excess he was writing about and living) comes through. The Deco extravagance of the big party scenes is enthralling. Luhrmann throws money at the screen in a way that is positively Gatsby-like, walloping you intentionally and un- with the theme of prodigal waste. I imagined him directing the spectacle while fending off—like Gatsby—phone calls from shady moneymen: “You spent a million dollars on fireworks? You needed how many sets of twins on how many fountains for one shot? Putz!”
About the anachronistic music (Jay-Z, Gershwin, anyone) I take no position, since the movie would be 100 percent ersatz even with period jazz. The sets look like rear-screen projection, so that the 3-D—which makes the actors pop out of the artificial backgrounds—feels unusually organic. It’s a fallacy that film adaptations of our most revered books require formality and a steady gaze. Novelists jump around in time, underlining this, ignoring that. Luhrmann is no Abel Gance or F.W. Murnau, but his syncopated rhythms, his liberal use of narration, and his constant weave of present and past (his flashbacks truly flash) conjure up silent screen cinema at its most unfettered. You could even argue that the movie straightens out too much in the last half hour and needed to be more vulgar—it slackens when the noose around Gatsby is tightening. You can cringe all through Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and still leave with fresh insight into the novel’s genius. It’s about the dream of doing things loud and fast and in grand style. It’s about having the biggest budget, old sport.
*This article originally appeared in the May 13, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.