Great adaptations are as rare as the great books upon which they are based. Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio managed to deliver a strong, unique twist on Shakespeare’s defining romantic tragedy in 1996. Interestingly, their first collaboration since is based on a book consumed with recapturing the magic of the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” is considered a defining portrait of the 1920s “Jazz Age,” which the author portrays as a time of excess and selfishness. The Gatsby story follows the mysterious Jay Gatsby (played in Luhrmann’s movie by DiCaprio) on his quest to win back the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), from the arms of her moneyed philandering husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Told from the perspective of Daisy’s cousin and Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), it’s a story of the American Dream, both the dream envisioned and the vision shattered. Like Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby is about a character who tries to recapture a moment of true happiness. Like all of Fitzgerald’s books, the story ends in melancholy. But the path to that end is full of incredible beauty.
And beauty is Luhrmann’s domain. His vision of 1920s New York City is a wild cacophony of bright lights, jazz music, whiling dancers, flowing booze — an endless party every bit as hedonistic as the craziest bash today. At Gatsby’s house, confetti rains down, fireworks explode, champagne sprays. In Tom Buchanan’s secret city apartment, characters stumble drunkenly while jazz blasts from balconies below. Luhrmann’s cinematographic abilities are on full display as he rushes from the city that never sleeps to the wealth of Long Island, and through the dreary landfill suburbs in between.
The excess conjures up Fitzgerald’s “May Day” short story more than the Gatsby novel. The film, like “May Day,” oozes that “general hysteria … which inaugurated the Age of Jazz,” as Fitzgerald put it. Luhrmann clearly understands both the 1920s the author described and the modern audience he hopes to entrance — he caters to both Fitzgerald and MTV fans. Countless lines spoken by the characters or narrated by Nick are drawn straight from the source, some literally written on the screen to ensure the beauty of the lines aren’t missed. Many — like the conclusion — are presented unaltered, and are as impactful in the movie as they are in the book. But for every quote, there’s a pulsing beat. Artists like Jay-Z and Florence and the Machine contribute to the soundtrack, and Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” plays and replays — a motif for Daisy and Gatsby’s love affair.
If Luhrmann stumbles, it’s somewhere in all the excess. Despite Fitzgerald’s wordy descriptions, his ultimate focus was on his characters. For Luhrmann, the focus is the party. The chateaus of Tom and Daisy, and of Gatsby, are from a fairytale, with sprawling manicured lawns, lit by brilliant candelabra, staffed by servants in crisp uniforms. The cars shine like polished armor, the affluent crowds move like entitled nobles. Through it all, acting is secondary. DiCaprio and Maguire are at their best, but they aren’t the focus of the film. Even when the delicate Mulligan first appears, it’s the wind-whipped curtains blowing about her that steal the scene. Mulligan’s tinkling laughter distracts rather than entices.
Even so, Fitzgerald’s career was built on describing a decade full of monetary excesses and the endless search for entertainment. Nothing has changed since then — a fact both artists would recognize.
Darin Miller is a film critic in Washington, D.C.