We didn’t need another film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, but if someone had to do it, it had to be Baz Luhrmann. The kind of large-scale opulence that the book describes and critiques is the 50-year-old director’s wheelhouse. For a while, Luhrmann pulls it off, too: The first hour of his Gatsby is an ecstatic tear through '20s hedonism. The camera swoops and whizzes like it's just excited to be there. The music, which finds contemporary pop royalty marrying big-band with big-room house or just dipping into dubstep, blares. Bouquets of people dance in pools, spill out of convertibles, and cram into ample hallways. The words “chemical madness” and “kaleidoscopic carnival” are uttered. Luhrmann parks at the intersection of kitsch and hallucination, stumbles out of his Duesenberg and deliriously rolls all over in the road.
There is nothing natural about The Great Gatsby. Because that is intentional, it is a bold affront to the modern, often misguided infatuation with authenticity. (Perfectly, Lana del Rey is on the soundtrack, singing maybe her most relatable song.) Whether Luhrmann’s grandiosity works is a matter of taste—those who don't believe that tackiness (which is to say bad taste) can be an ideal (which is to say good taste) are unlikely to be won over at any point. I say give me visual candy till my eyes burst from it. Give me reams of flowing fabric. Give me so many streamers and glitter that they work as a filter, altering the color of the picture. Give me fireworks. The Great Gatsby does. This is a fireworks display of a movie featuring an actual fireworks display behind Leonardo DiCaprio, punctuating his announcement, “I am Gatsby!”
This movie goes for something encompassing Old Hollywood and vague notions of the way people used to carry themselves. Few of the actors, however, seem to know what they’re doing. People constantly speak like they’re adults telegraphing to each other that they’re telling lies for the benefit of unaware children (“Santa only comes when you’re asleep”). Carrie Mulligan plays Daisy like a cartoon battered woman—she rarely seems less than terrified by her task. As narrating nonentity Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire looks similarly overwhelmed, his eyes bugging out, his head pulled back to threaten the delineation of his chin, a perpetual gulp in his throat. Kermit the Frog would have been a better casting choice. The high affectation of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby feels more right than everyone else (“The way he spoke—no wonder people thought that he was lying,” observes Nick). But even in this best case, I still felt like I was watching an amateur magician attempt to convince everyone in the audience that he is a real magician.
There is no way the richness of Fitzgerald’s writing was going to translate entirely to the screen, not even by putting those words actually on the screen (Nick writes the story as we watch it unfurl), not even by peppering the dialogue with Fitzgerald’s splashy truths like, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time.” That said, Luhrmann doesn’t do nuance, and he stomps all over the intricacies of Fitzgerald’s social critique during The Great Gatsby’s final 90 minutes, which focus on the Gatsby-Daisy-Tom Buchanan (Joe Edgerton) love triangle. As in Luhrmann’s superior but far from perfect Moulin Rouge, the early set pace proves impossible to maintain. What we are left with is a 3D soap opera that blinks a green light at us with enough persistence to trigger a seizure. And the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes the eyes the eyes. Luhrmann flashes on them with mounting intensity but zero illumination, so that the film finally feels like all eyes everything.
In the case of Luhrmann’s Gatsby, the fall is not worth the ride. Perhaps that fact allows this movie to convey a theme of Fitzgerald’s uncomfortably well. Perhaps like Gatsby, Luhrmann has an extraordinary gift for hope. But the fruits of that hope are a chore to endure.