F. Scott Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical tome is adapted into a fairy tale of tragic proportions. The film can be rightly accused of delivering Fitzgerald’s characters as one-dimensional flirtations or of bad judgment in adding contemporary rap to a soundtrack set in the Roaring ‘20s. We may also balk at director Baz Luhrmann’s wildly-imagined visuals – but he is never dull.
Luhrmann, who works in tandem with his talented costume and production designer wife Catherine Martin, displays an attraction to the garish that often exceeds his considerable attraction to elegance.
Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is our conduit into, and narrator of, Gatsby’s world. When we meet him, Nick is recuperating from his own excesses in a sanitarium, under the care of a doctor who instructs Nick to write about whatever will give him therapeutic release. On paper, Carraway recalls events from a decade earlier, when as a young rube, he found himself facilitating a love triangle.
After moving into a bay-side cottage, Carraway, an aspiring writer, is drawn to the shadows cast by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), his mysterious, millionaire neighbor of dubious reputation. In time, Carraway is invited to dinner at the splendid estate of his wealthy cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), living just across the bay. Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) — Daisy’s husband — is a rogue with a taste for wild parties and fast women. Eager to see more of her compliant, polite cousin, Daisy throws Carraway at her best friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a champion golfer seemingly willing to trade competition on the links for the relative ease of staying with Daisy and Tom.
Using Jordan and Carraway as go-betweens, Gatsby arranges his long-awaited reunion with Daisy. The preamble to this meeting includes the fascinating depiction of Jay Gatsby reinventing Carraway’s humble cottage and patchy grounds into a charming lovers’ getaway. At Gatsby’s request, Nick invites Daisy for tea, two days hence, prompting Gatsby to hire a dozen landscapers who empty several Manhattan flower shops. The stick-strewn property is transformed into a rose-covered fantasy land, while Carraway’s living room houses such an abundance of white flowers, it’s a wonder that Gatsby and Daisy have a place to sit, let alone smell or taste, the tea they are served.
Seeking a confidant and co-conspirator, Gatsby tells Carraway autobiographical tales to prove that he is worthy of Daisy’s love.
From Carraway’s vantage point, Gatsby and Daisy are oddly matched, but he roots for Gatsby anyway, impressed by Gatsby’s unwavering devotion.
Luhrmann is faithful to the book’s plot, allowing the story to gather steam as the mystery surrounding Gatsby mounts. His visual trickery creates its own dream, one that spills across the story to tell other stories. In one such passage, Carraway discusses the warped perception he feels during a bout of drunken revelry. Luhrmann’s tour through Carraway’s mind is inventive, even compelling, but he takes the viewer far afield from the action which becomes small and unimportant compared to Luhrmann’s vision.
The camera frequently flies and spins through and above the people and places Luhrmann observes from different, unexpected angles. Like Gatsby himself, these sequences are intriguing, artistic and grand, but are largely irrelevant and generally incompatible with the style of a film set during the 1920s. Moments before my conscious mind could discern the origins of the soundtrack, my brow furrowed in response to the hip-hop and rap used as a backdrop for Jazz Age euphoria. As a viewer, these anachronisms become itches without a scratch, breaking the cinematic spell and propelling me out of the film.
Luhrmann’s understanding of the compulsions that consume these characters provides sufficient magic — if he’d only let it. The cast defies preconceived notions in a good way, and ought to compel us to ponder this cautionary tale. Instead, I recall a stunning shot of Manhattan’s buildings spinning and spinning beneath an orbiting camera moving farther and farther away. Luhrmann is telling us that the city is a universe unto itself, but we’d rather remember Gatsby’s moonlit profile.