F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Cirque du Soleil in director Baz Luhrmann's extravagant, eye-popping 3-D adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” an artful mash-up that blends Shakespearean tragedy with Roaring '20s razzmatazz, crisp Brooks Brother style with Art Deco opulence, and the classic Jazz Age swing of Bryan Ferry with the urban beats of Jay-Z and Beyonce.
In an energetic, though often overwhelming and over-the-top effort to make Fitzgerald's enduring 1925 novel feel urgent and contemporary, the producers have given free rein to Luhrmann to work his unique brand of screen magic. And the consummate Australian showman, whose resume ranges from the stagey “Red Curtain” trilogy of films — “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” — to a plush, carnivalesque 2002 Broadway production of “La Boheme,” pulls out every trick in his repertoire.
The director's penchant for operatic excess often seems at war with his obvious regard for the lyrical, keyed-up brilliance of Fitzgerald's language and his tragic love story. But behind all the visual filigrees and the pulsing rhythms of the movie, the core story of shady, self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, looking like the starched and pressed Arrow Shirt man) and his obsessive love for flighty debutante Daisy Buchanan (wispy Carey Mulligan in blonde bobbed hairdo) comes through clearly and faithfully.
It's all told through the eyes (and the voice-over narration incorporating Fitzgerald's magical prose) of bright-eyed Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, whose face is an open book). Nick is a Fitzgerald-like Ivy Leaguer, an aspiring writer seeking his fortune in New York, circa 1922, in a postwar era of loosening flapper morals, flowing bootleg booze and intoxicating jazz music.
Nick settles into a vine-covered cottage in Long Island's nouveau riche West Egg, across the glittering bay from old-money East Egg, where his flighty cousin Daisy lives with her bullying, philandering, blue-blooded husband Tom Buchanan (blustery Joel Edgerton). Next door in the Xanadu-style mansion of Jay Gatsby, Nick is soon drawn by the glam-glittery nightly parties and their decadent displays of debauchery. And before long, Nick is summoned by Gatsby and enlisted as an ally in a carefully planned effort to lure in and woo Daisy.
As Nick finds himself pulled deeply into the world of the super rich and seduced by Gatsby's intoxicating vision of romance and life reinvented, the stage is set for a harrowing tragedy that reveals the dark, decadent underside of the American dream.
Luhrmann's “Gatsby” stands in stark contrast to the last effort to film the novel — director Jack Clayton's 1974 version, a prim and decorous period piece that had Robert Redford as Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick and Mia Farrow as Daisy. Employing occasionally effective but largely unnecessary 3-D effects and interspersing riffs of hip-hop and contemporary music into the period score, Luhrmann's version is anything but period prim. It's throbbing with energy and a jumpy, off-kilter vibe that aptly echoes the youthful impatience and yearning of the Jazz Age.
While literary purists might balk at Luhrmann's poetic liberties and his ringmaster style, his flamboyant film makes a strong case for the durability and timelessness of Fitzgerald's classic. Even tarted up in the most garish of cinema finery, “The Great Gatsby” retains its essential dignity through all the frenzy.
— Dennis King