‘The Great Gatsby” is a great book, but to treat it like one is fatal. The 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald has been filmed numerous times, usually with the reverence of moviemakers approaching Literature on bended knee: the stolid 1974 Hollywood version, with Robert Redford miscast in the title role; a dreadful BBC production from 2000. What one wouldn’t give to see the lost 1926 silent version of “Gatsby,” made so close to the abyss Fitzgerald was chronicling.
The book is about societal madness and the all-American dream of self-invention, about old money and new colliding like cracked eggs, about the pleasures of partying and the dangers of watching. It’s about hope and pink suits and the eyes of God staring stunned at the foolishness of human beings. It’s about scandal seen in both the heat of midnight and the cool of dawn.
At its best — which, sadly, isn’t often enough — Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is a scandal, too. It’s also, in event and emotion (if not strict period fidelity), the most faithful movie version of Fitzgerald’s novel to date. The two are not unconnected.
And it has in Leonardo DiCaprio — magnificent is the only word to describe this performance — the best movie Gatsby by far, superhuman in his charm and connections, the host of revels beyond imagining, and at his heart an insecure fraud whose hopes are pinned to a woman. Not even a woman, but the idea of a woman: Daisy Fay Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), the girl whose “voice is full of money.”
Those silly enough to come to this “Gatsby” seeking good taste are hereby directed elsewhere. Anyone who has seen “Moulin Rouge” or “Romeo + Juliet” knows that Luhrmann lives for excess, and he delivers in the movie’s opening hour, aided immeasurably by the eye-popping costumes and production design of his wife, Catherine Martin. The parties Jay Gatsby throws at his castle in the nouveau riche Long Island suburb of West Egg are gargantuan in their over-the-top tackiness, as they should be. It’s all here and it’s all too much: the swarming crowds of Jazz Age pleasure seekers, rioting entertainers, senators, flappers, poseurs, and — revealed in an orgiastic burst of fireworks to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — Gatsby himself, the smiling master of ceremonies. Is he a gangster, a killer, a Wall Street fat cat? Everyone claims to know about him, yet no one knows who he is.
Luhrmann has already horrified the purists for his decision to score the party scenes to hip-hop songs produced by Jay-Z and various collaborators. So sue me, it works: The thwomping bass lines and cackling rap lyrics drive the movie forward with an energy and outrage the period’s jazz music no longer possesses. Even the director’s much-scorned use of 3-D adds to the ridiculous bigness of “The Great Gatsby” while measuring the vast gulf between Gatsby’s house and Daisy’s mansion across the bay in old-money East Egg. An early image shows the hero reaching out to the ray of green light piercing the night from her dock to his, and it’s to Luhrmann’s credit that we almost grasp it too.
The film wheels its characters on in tandem and in spirit with the book: Daisy’s brutal, polo-playing husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, in a genuinely dangerous performance); her friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki, chic as a Vogue cover and first seen balancing that invisible object on her chin); Tom’s slattern of a mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), desperate to clamber out of the Valley of Ashes; the omniscient gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, here played (and very well) by the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.
Mulligan’s Daisy is a qualified success. The actress doesn’t portray the pampered airhead Fitzgerald gradually let us see beneath the fringed dresses, but she has an ethereal beauty, the murmuring voice, and the hesitancy of a girl who has never once had to cope with the real world. Where this “Gatsby” makes its most serious misstep is with the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, whom Luhrmann envisions as a fatuous twit played by Tobey Maguire. In the most serious deviation from the novel, the director adds a framing story line involving the older Nick at a sanitarium for treatment of “morbid alcoholism,” writing the story of his friend Jay that will become — how about that? — “The Great Gatsby” itself.
So Nick is Fitzgerald, more and less, but it’s the only trick in the movie that feels cheap for the wrong reasons, typed letters flying in the air and sticking to the screen. The character is supposed to be a flawed, passive narrator but this is taking it too far, and Maguire’s simpering performance, abetted by goofy choices in sweaterwear, makes matters worse. (Not surprisingly, Nick’s romance with Jordan Baker has been excised — how could she take such a prat seriously? — which is too bad, because Debicki’s so good.)
At the film’s midpoint (as in the book), Gatsby’s true past is laid out, and Luhrmann shifts into a lushly swooning depiction of Jay and Daisy’s affair. The tempo slows down and the scenes go on too long, even if this section starts with a reunion in Nick’s cottage that’s both touching and very funny. (Here’s where DiCaprio lets Gatsby’s self-control start to fray.) The movie begins to feel overindulged, and the problem is that the director is buying into his hero’s grand delusion — that theirs really is a love for the ages — rather than standing just outside it as Fitzgerald did. Luhrmann wants to make the teenage girls cry (and mine sure did, snurfling happily beside me in the dark), but the diamond-hard perceptiveness of the book’s prose — the way Fitzgerald saw his generation’s lies and loved them all the more — eludes him.
So it’s not a great “Gatsby.” It still comes closer than other versions have dared, in both its willful vulgarity and its on-and-off awareness of what Americans have traditionally used vulgarity to avoid thinking about. The movie understands that Gatsby is America, from his bootstrap beginnings and glorious reinvention to his eternal hope that the past will never catch up, or not the real past, the one outside his dreams. Like his hero, though, the director is too much in love with love itself: He’s a romantic, which F. Scott Fitzgerald was assuredly not. That doesn’t bring him to ruin as it does Gatsby, but it almost lays this dazzling and bravely absurd movie low.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.