If any piece of classic American literature should be depicted on film with wildly decadent and boldly inventive style, it’s “The Great Gatsby.” After all, who was the character of Jay Gatsby himself if not a spinner of grandiose tales and a peddler of lavish dreams?
And Baz Luhrmann would seem like the ideal director to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story to the screen yet again, to breathe new life into these revered words, having shaken up cultural institutions previously with films like “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!” This is the man who dared to stage the iconic balcony scene in a swimming pool, so mixing in a little Jay-Z amid the Jazz Age standards strangely makes sense.
But in Luhrmann’s previous films, there still existed a fundamental understanding of the point of the stories he was telling; beneath their gorgeous trappings, they still reflected the heart and the purpose of the works from which they were drawn. His “Great Gatsby” is all about the glitter but it has no soul — and the fact that he’s directed it in 3-D only magnifies the feeling of artificiality. His camera rushes and swoops and twirls through one elaborately staged bacchanal after another but instead of creating a feeling of vibrancy, the result is repetitive and ultimately numbing. Rather than creating a sense of immersion and tangibility, the 3-D holds you at arm’s length, rendering the expensive, obsessive details as shiny and hollow when they should have been exquisite.
Luhrmann’s adaptation, which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce, lacks the sense of melancholy and longing that emanated from the novel’s pages, even though the script invokes Fitzgerald’s prose early and often through voiceover from Tobey Maguire as our narrator, guide and Fitzgerald stand-in Nick Carraway. Sometimes, as in the book’s famous, final sentence, the words pop right up on screen and linger in the air.
But there’s something about hearing and seeing them in this fashion that depletes them of the power they provide when we experience them on the written page. It’s a reminder that one of the most celebrated novels of our time, at its core, is a melodramatic tale of love and loss, jealousy and betrayal.
Gatsby himself, played with well-coifed panache by Leonardo DiCaprio, too often comes off as a needy, clingy stalker rather than a tragic figure and a victim of the American dream. But in general, though, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” doesn’t get the fact that the book was intended as a critical look at a crumbling dream. It gets too caught up in the buzz of the party.