In my younger and more vulnerable years, I might have felt more generous toward Baz Luhrmann's wild take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel. But as it stands, it's more like The Good Gatsby.
It's certainly more praiseworthy than most critics have said, but when the best praise I can give it is in comparison to the 1974 film, that's not saying enough. Back then, The Great Gatsby wasn't so much filmed as it was embalmed. With the lead roles miscast and a leaden pace, the whole thing felt as stiff as a starched collar. It had no pulse.
Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby certainly has a pulse, but it's an erratic one. At first, it's mesmerizing. The director's florid visuals explode off the screen with quite literal fireworks, while Gershwin and Beyonce (together at last) blare forth on the soundtrack. His 1920s roar with blinding colors and dizzying camera tricks. The use of 3D is enveloping as our point of view careens from New York's skyscrapers and zooms through the city streets. Moulin Gatsby, anyone?
So the problem isn't so much that it's over the top. With Luhrmmann at the controls, that's a given. The eye candy certainly fits the themes of putting on false fronts. But eventually, the stylistics become wearying.
In Luhrmann's past movies, the wild visuals seemed to flow from the material. The heated emotions of Romeo + Juliet made a wild style fitting. Moulin Rouge was such a unique world, it couldn't help but be delirious. This time, Lurhmann's hyperactivity feels grafted on to the material, and it doesn't always reflect Fitzgerald's graceful prose.
Case in point: in one shot we see a billboard with the familiar book cover art of the eyes looming over the city. That might have been clever if used once or twice, but Luhrmann beats us over the head with it like a desperate Cliffs Notes writer. His style makes Gatsby seem more like Charles Foster Kane, an error the 1974 movie also committed.
And yet, I still recommend Luhrmann's Gatsby, largely because of the actors, who sell the material. Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby looms larger than life but is touchingly vulnerable. No longer is he merely a romantic cypher. Joel Edgerton makes for a genuinely menacing Tom, and with Carey Mulligan, I finally understood why Gatsby made such a fuss over her. Only Tobey Maguire disappoints as the rather dull narrator.
I am thankful that we finally have a cinematic Great Gatsby that is worth seeing. I only wish that it was as good as it could have been.