Baz Luhrmann may be the last guy in the world who needs to make a movie in 3-D. In previous films like Romeo + Juliet, Australia, and especially Moulin Rouge!, the whirling-dervish director has turned the screen into a mad circus of razzle-dazzle fireworks. Restraint isn’t his strong suit. Then again, it wasn’t a strong suit of the Roaring ’20s, either. Maybe that’s why Luhrmann piles on the Roman-candle flash for his manic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic.
Most famously, Hollywood put its mitts on The Great Gatsby in 1974, when Robert Redford and Mia Farrow turned the champagne-soaked love story into a stately, snoozy Harlequin romance. Luhrmann goes to the other extreme, transforming the high school reading-list perennial into an ADHD workout — at least for the first half of the film. Plotwise, Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce stick pretty close to the novel. The only real jackknife is a framing device that has narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) retelling the tipsy events of the summer of 1922 in flashback from a sanitarium, where he’s recovering from a debauched season in the sun in Long Island’s nouveau-riche West Egg.
The main story kicks off after Nick leaves the Midwest and heads east to stake his claim on Wall Street, where postwar exuberance runs full tilt. ”The tempo of the city had changed,” Maguire says in a voice-over. ”The buildings were higher, the parties were bigger, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper.” Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), a former Yale classmate of Nick’s, live across the bay from his modest summer rental in old-money East Egg. Meanwhile, next door to Nick in West Egg is an opulent pleasure palace where dandies in straw hats and party girls in beaded frocks drink and dance around the clock. It’s here that Nick makes the acquaintance of the movable feast’s mysterious and fabulously wealthy host, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby makes sure the glasses stay filled, but he stands in the shadows at a quiet remove. He’s got something else on his mind: Daisy. Five years earlier, Gatsby fell madly in love with her. He was a young, penniless soldier heading off to war, and Daisy was a ”golden girl” from a prominent Louisville family. Convinced he had to make his fortune before he deserved her, he vanished. But he never got over her. Now he intends to woo Daisy back, with Nick’s help.
That may sound like a lot of setup, but Luhrmann zips through the high-society swirl with frenzied montages, spinning newspaper headlines, and Cirque du Soleil-style party scenes where flappers on trapezes (thanks to the film’s 3-D) seem to swing right into your lap and DJs spin 21st-century hip-hop tracks. At first, these anachronistic bacchanals are intoxicatingly strange. But eventually they just seem insane. You half expect a chorus line of Oompa Loompas to high-step on screen with Beyoncé. Thankfully, Luhrmann does settle down after Gatsby and Daisy secretly meet and rekindle their romance. Still, for the most part, the actors never sync up with Luhrmann’s jitterbug rhythm. Maguire, now 37, seems too old to be the naive bumpkin narrator the movie wants him to be. And Mulligan’s poor little rich girl Daisy isn’t given a lot to do besides pout, swoon, and grouse about the heat. You never understand why Gatsby would be so obsessed with her. Like Redford, DiCaprio has a smooth, sun-kissed charisma as Gatsby, calling Nick ”old sport” in a clubby drawl. But it’s Edgerton, as the boisterous bully Tom, who commands the audience’s attention. Behind his Douglas Fairbanks pencil mustache and backslapping Ivy League hauteur lies the film’s most nuanced performance.
I suspect it’s been a while since most folks have cracked open a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel, so I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that like the giddy period it chronicles, the fizzy high comes with an inevitable crash. There’s a reason The Great Gatsby continues to be taught in classrooms nearly 90 years after it was written. It’s a dazzling time capsule of a shimmering era and a devastating look into the dark side of the American dream. Too bad Luhrmann, the caffeinated conductor, doesn’t trust that story enough. He’d rather blast your retinas into sugar-shock submission. Uncle, old sport! Uncle! B-