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To the skeptical, the news that Baz Luhrmann was directing and co-adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—in 3-D!—brought to mind the big-screen equivalent of Moulin Rouge! vomiting all over an autographed first edition of the 1925 novel. It’s going to be gaudy. It’s going to be gauche. It’s going to strip all the class from a classic.
At times, this fourth adaptation of the book commits all of these sins. There’s a virtual orgy with shrill, spastic ladies in lingerie as a trumpet player provides in-the-mood music from a fire escape. A party at the wealthy title character’s Long Island palace is accessorized with confetti, streamers, and fireworks that seem to spread across the cosmos as guests dance so frantically they may as well be cocaine- instead of Champagne-fueled. (And the scene, chaotic though it is, would probably benefit from a bright, colorful presentation in 2-D rather than the murky dimness that the glasses provide solely for the occasional pop-out of a streamer.) Luhrmann also Django Unchained it: Fitzgerald’s story offers a portrait of the decadence of the Jazz Age, so naturally the soundtrack includes…Jay-Z and Beyoncé? This isn’t Romeo + Juliet; Luhrmann’s intention was not to lift the author’s dialogue and place it in a modern setting. It’s still 1922—and just like in Quentin Tarantino’s latest period piece, hip-hop doesn’t belong.
Some of the casting also doesn’t quite work, though the acting in general is fine even when the actor isn’t. The narrator of this story is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a quiet Midwesterner who wants to be a writer but (perhaps astutely) moved to New York City to learn the bond business. He lives in the fictional West Egg of Long Island, the place for new money, while his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), lives with her domineering, philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), and a toddler she rarely talks about across the water in the East Egg, home to old money. Nick soon learns he has a mysterious, rich, silver-spoon neighbor named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a bon vivant alleged to have a colorful past and a devil-may-care present, regularly hosting lavish parties at which everyone is welcome but where he’s never seen.
When Nick receives a formal invitation to a party—the first person ever to get one—he learns of Gatsby’s objective: to lure Daisy, whom he still loves five years after he went to war, into his home and back into his life. One of the film’s most delicately nuanced scenes involves the erstwhile couple’s first reunion. Gatsby forces Nick to host a tea and invite Daisy, with him, in a Three’s Company-like scheme, dropping by just after she arrives. Things don’t go terribly smoothly (Gatsby gets soaked in a downpour while at Nick’s door), but once the two meet, it’s an awkwardly lovely thing, with DiCaprio nailing Gatsby’s uncharacteristic anxiousness and Mulligan’s heartbreaking eyes so clearly projecting Daisy’s anguish and flood of feelings upon seeing her former paramour.
The reunion may drag out too long—a downside of too many scenes in this 2 hour, 20-minute film—but it cements what was likely already clear: that Mulligan, with all her melancholic expressiveness and beauty, is the jewel in this cast. DiCaprio and Maguire don’t fit as neatly. Even though both Gatsby and Nick are 30 in the novel—and the actors in their late 30s—both are too boyish to be regarded as anything but kids playing dress-up. Compare DiCaprio to the last filmic Gatsby, Robert Redford. And consider that Maguire played a teenager in the Spider-Man franchise just a handful of years ago. They’re capable actors—though DiCaprio initially seems to have a slight, weird accent that eventually goes away completely—but it takes some suspension of disbelief to buy them as complex, seasoned men.
Luhrmann, meanwhile, really takes only one giant misstep, and that’s appearing to celebrate the culture of excess that Fitzgerald was actually criticizing. Even the 3-D is tasteful, mostly because it’s seldom noticeable, lending artful, Hugo-like depth to scenes. One of the final shots is like an Impressionist painting, with soft rain and fog enveloping Nick as he walks across a bridge. Like the love that unmoors the ever-confident, showy Gatsby, there’s nothing garish about it.