It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” which arrives six months after its originally scheduled December release date but maintains something of a gussied-up holiday feel, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as staged by Liberace. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that the Aussie auteur behind the gaudy, more-is-more spectacles “Moulin Rouge” and “Australia” has delivered a “Gatsby” less in the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel than in that of its eponymous antihero — a man who believes bejeweled excess will help him win the heart of the one thing his money can’t buy. Cinema audiences can prove as fickle and elusive as Daisy Buchanan, too, but it’s a fair bet that a starry cast (and soundtrack) and sheer curiosity value will power this Warner/Roadshow co-production to career-best box office numbers for Luhrmann (a record currently held by “Australia,” at $211 million), if not quite enough to justify its supposed $127 million budget.
Like the blinking green beacon at the end of Daisy’s dock — so close and yet so far — Fitzgerald’s masterpiece of American letters has been a siren call for filmmakers ever since it was published in 1925. The first, silent screen adaptation arrived just one year later (and is now, like so many films of that era, believed lost), with subsequent versions following in 1949 (reconfigured into a film noir), 1974 (the best-known, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) and for cable TV in 2000. Rarely included in official “Gatsby” inventories, 2002’s quite curious “G” found an analog for Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age in the world of contemporary music’s hip-hop elite, long before Luhrmann saw fit to enlist Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter as a collaborator on his film’s cheerfully anachronistic soundtrack. But no one has yet cracked “Gatsby” on film as ingeniously as the theater company Elevator Repair Service did in its 2010 stage adaptation, “Gatz,” built around one actor’s unabridged, cover-to-cover recitation of the novel.
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It is often said that great books make for inferior films and vice versa, but there is something particular about “Gatsby” that seems to defy the screen. Transformed into voiceover, the running first-person narration of Nick Carraway (here played by Tobey Maguire) turns stilted and dry (presumably a problem the silent version avoided). Scrutinized by the camera’s gaze, Fitzgerald’s beautifully deployed symbols and signifiers become leaden with portent: the green light, the yellow roadster, the mountain of custom-tailored shirts, the unused swimming pool and the ever-watchful eyes staring out from the billboard of an enterprising Queens oculist. With Luhrmann at the helm, those devices loom larger and more literal than ever, until they come to resemble the towering monoliths of “2001.”
Of course, to accuse Luhrmann (who also co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce) of overkill is a bit like faulting a leopard for his spots. Love it or hate it, take it or leave it, this is unmistakably his “Gatsby” through and through, and as with all such carte-blanche extravaganzas (increasingly rare in this cautious Hollywood age), it exudes an undeniable fascination — at least for a while. In the notes for his unfinished final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” Fitzgerald famously wrote, “action is character,” but for Luhrmann action is production design, hairstyling, Prada gowns and sweeping, swirling, CGI-enhanced camera movements that offer more bird’s-eye views of Long Island (actually the Fox Studios in Sydney) than “The Hobbit” did of Middle-earth. Arguably, the movie reaches its orgiastic peak 30 minutes in, with the first full reveal of Gatsby himself (Leonardo DiCaprio), accompanied by an explosion of fireworks and the eruption of Gershwin on the soundtrack. Where, really, can one go from there?
But oh, how Luhrmann tries. Together with cinematographer Simon Duggan, he unleashes every manipulation he can think of — sepia flashbacks, smash zooms, split screens, superimpositions, period newsreel footage, new footage degraded to resemble period newsreel footage — all of it coming at you in three steroscopic dimensions. Only occasionally does the style seem like an actual response to the text rather than a visual circus operating independently of it. In one of the pic’s more striking passages, Carraway’s famous observation that he feels at once “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled” becomes a lyrical mosaic of shared New York experience. Less effectively, Luhrmann has complete sentences from the novel appear typed out on the screen — a gimmick explained by a framing device that situates Carraway in a sanitarium, recounting the tale of Gatsby to a captivated shrink (Jack Thompson) who encourages him to write the story down.
What Luhrmann grasps even less than previous adapters of the tale is that Fitzgerald was, via his surrogate Carraway, offering an eyewitness account of the decline of the American empire, not an invitation to the ball. But Luhrmann identifies far more strongly with Gatsby than he does with Nick, and instead of a tragic figure undone by his false optimism and unrequited yearning, the character becomes an object of envy —someone whose swank mansion and runway couture would be awfully nice to call one’s own. So the champagne flows like monsoon rain and the wild parties roar. Who cares if you’re doomed to meet an untimely end, so long as you go out looking fabulous?
Everyone does look the part in this “Gatsby,” not least DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan (as Daisy), though in the years since his innovative, modern-dress “Romeo + Juliet,” where style still sat in something like equal balance with substance, Luhrmann has become less interested in performances than in artful poses. Periodically, as if by accident, something like real emotion pokes up through the film’s well-manicured surface, as when Gatsby recounts his first meeting with Daisy, his face lighting up with the childlike hope that so entrances Nick about him. More often, “Gatsby” feels like a well-rehearsed classic in which the actors say their lines ably, but with no discernible feeling behind them. By far the liveliest work in the film comes from two actors with only a few minutes of screen time between them: the lithe, long-limbed newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as gabby golf pro Jordan Baker, and, in a single scene that marks his belated Hollywood debut, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan as the flamboyant Jewish “gambler,” Meyer Wolfsheim.
Among the uniformly accomplished technical contributions, Luhrmann’s producer wife, Catherine Martin (already a double Oscar winner for “Moulin Rouge”) once again stands out for her production and costume design.