Jazzy, fizzy and often quite fun, Baz Luhrmann’s “Pretty Good Gatsby” takes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel out for a sometimes dazzling, always irreverent spin.
The gauzy picture-postcard 3-D production design and superb leading players breathe life into the Jazz Age novel. But the “Moulin Rouge!” director’s barely contained determination to Australianize, if not outright bastardize, “The Great Gatsby” is constantly at war with a book and a cast that scream “classic.” And Luhrmann isn’t having that.
Gatbsy’s orgiastic parties are set to hip-hop music. A clumsy sanitarium-set framing device gives Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a tad too much Fitzgerald autobiography and too little Nick, the shrewd but passive observer. And some of the supporting player choices take you right out of the movie. Seriously, what Luhrmann and “colorblind casting” do to the “gambler” and gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is so far removed from Jewish caricature or stereotype as to be laughable.
But Maguire is close to perfect as Nick, the struggling bond salesman, would-be writer and teller of the tale of his neighbor, the mysterious “richer than God” Jay Gatsby, and of the inbred aristocracy that Nick’s cousin Daisy was born into and married into. Carey Mulligan makes for a cannier Daisy than the hapless ditz Mia Farrow turned her into back when Robert Redford played Gatsby in 1974. Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”) makes the brawny, bigoted Tom Buchanan an understandable, if not remotely sympathetic, guardian of his polo-playing “ruling class.”
And Leonardo DiCaprio brings depth, neediness and focus to Gatsby, who has copied the manners, affectations and dress of America’s not-noble nobility, all in pursuit of his feminine ideal – Daisy.
Photographed right, there’s a Wellesian larger-than-life aura about DiCaprio, and Luhrmann introduces him as the character in a grand moment that includes confetti, fireworks and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – a tune composed two years after this film is set (1922) but close enough to be perfect.
Nick rents a rundown bungalow next door to Gatsby’s Disneyland-sized mansion. He finds himself the go-between in the mysterious millionaire’s obsession, a way for Gatsby to see the woman he loves but who lived totally outside of his income years before. All that he earned, all that he made of himself in Prohibition-era America, he did for her.
But Daisy’s unhappily married to a bullying philanderer. Tom and Nick may have gone to Yale together, and Daisy may be Nick’s cousin. But with her pal, the rich sportswoman Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Nick conspires to get Gatsby in a room alone with Daisy.
Which isn’t where the trouble starts but where the tale takes its fateful turn toward the fatal.
Tom cheats with Myrtle (Isla Fisher) and uses Nick just as Gatsby would – as an alibi and co-conspirator. Poor Nick is trapped in a daze of booze and sex, mannered courtship and “appearances.”
Luhrmann stages stunningly choreographed parties that suggest a high-class rave with an unlimited budget set to a furious hip-hop beat. Long shots are painterly fantasy landscapes, the hazy bright-colored impressionism of memory. Manhattan is a garishly colorized sea of neon and noise.
But this movie hangs utterly on performance, and DiCaprio’s Gatsby is mesmerizing. His studied use of the term “old sport,” awkward attempts at poses and occasional lapses – dropping the Jay Gatsby facade – are exactly right, even if they go beyond the novel’s dense texture of mystery.
The beating heart of the book, its aspirational “Great Expectations” ethos – coveting wealth to re-create an imagined past and idealized future – shines through in this performance. The emptiness of those pursuits – money, partying, marrying for status – seems more modern than ever.
But it is DiCaprio’s lovelorn, hopeful, grasping and nostalgic Gatsby that stands out, a man who earns Nick’s finest compliment, one of the greatest lines in all of literature: “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them put together.”