"The Great Gatsby" aka 'The Great Glitzy'

May 9, 2013

If the old saying that nothing succeeds like excess were true, director Baz Luhrmann’s movies would have out-grossed Avatar, Titanic and everything in the Star Wars catalog. Over the past 20 years, the Australian has built a reputation as a filmmaker who always buys in bulk when it comes to sets, costumes, music and emotions.

His commercial breakthrough came in 1996 with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, in which he cast Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the doomed lovers and placed them in a tripped-out vision of Verona that resembled the Mardi Gras in Miami. Seventeen years later, Luhrmann and DiCaprio have reunited for The Great Gatsby, which gives F. Scott Fitzgerald the same kind of manic makeover they once inflicted on the poor Bard of Avon.

While the familiar characters are present and the plot is reasonably well-preserved, this is decidedly not the Gatsby you yawned through in sophomore English class. In Luhrmann’s interpretation, flappers and dandies dance the Charleston to the sounds of Fergie and will.i.am, and Gatsby and Daisy fox-trot to the little-girl-lost crooning of Lana del Ray. 

Cinematographer Simon Duggan’s cameras plunge from the pinnacles of New York skyscrapers down to the sidewalks, or zoom backward down Manhattan avenues, frantically trying to drink in production designer Catherine Martin’s gloriously gaudy, neon-saturated recreation of 1922 New York. Style reigns supreme at every moment: Even the water in Gatsby’s swimming pool seems to have been tinted to match DiCaprio’s eyes.

Frequently, it seems as if Luhrmann has cross-bred a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza with one of those 1950s soap operas like Written on the Wind or All That Heaven Allows. Shot in ravishing Technicolor and stuffed with volcanic passions: “The Great Glitzy” would be an equally appropriate title.

Purists, predictably, will gasp and groan. Yet Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” has considerably more electricity and verve than director Jack Clayton’s turgid 1974 version, in which a sleepwalking Robert Redford and a jittery Mia Farrow somehow turned the Roaring ‘20s into the Snoring ‘20s. In terms of drama, this “Gatsby” is admittedly hit-and-miss, but there’s powerful magnetism between DiCaprio, who plays Jay Gatsby as the world’s best-groomed stalker, and Carey Mulligan, who brings a lovely delicacy to the sad-eyed Daisy Buchannan (Luhrmann introduces her as a diamond-studded nymph, emerging from a silky cocoon of billowing white curtains). DiCaprio’s bubbly energy and determination contrast effectively with Mulligan’s cool composure and flights of fluttery-ness; this is a romance in which the flame is inextricably drawn to the moth.

Although “Gatsby” may not have been the first mid-life crisis story, it has been one of the few with real staying power, and much of that is due to Fitzgerald’s supremely seductive prose. That’s also been a major stumbling block in bringing the book successfully to the screen. “Gatsby” takes hold of readers through its textures, its attitude, its ambiance: The plot is secondary to the mood it creates. Attempting to put that on film is almost as tricky as bottling the morning mist or lassoing a sunbeam.

The screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce retains a generous portion of Fitzgerald’s dialogue and language and doesn’t take as many liberties with the story as you might expect, but even so the movie ends up having more in common with Luhrmann’s philosophy than with Fitzgerald’s. Fitzgerald was excoriating the snobs and cosmopolites of East Egg; Luhrmann seems to envy them, watching their every move as intently as the painted eyes on that occulist’s billboard stare out at unlucky sad sacks like the doomed George and Myrtle Wilson in the Valley of Ashes.

As in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, the framing device involves a memoir, in this case the autobiography of Gatsby’s confidante, Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire), an alcoholic drying out in a sanitarium seven years after his cruel summer on Long Island. While the role of the starry-eyed hero-worshipper is a thankless one, Maguire’s natural humor and warmth comes through.

Joel Edgerton is terrific as Daisy’s philandering husband, Tom, whom he plays as a secretly wicked tomcat, silently simmering and patiently waiting for the proper moment to strike. The movie’s other standout performance comes from Elizabeth Debicki, who turns the shallow sophisticate Jordan Baker into an alluring personality.

“You can’t repeat the past,” Nick reminds Gatsby. “Of course you can,” Gatsby argues. Luhrmann has it both ways, pairing the Jazz Age and Jay Z. His peculiar concoction won’t be everyone’s cup of bootleg gin, but this “Gatsby” has a kick to it, as well as effervescence to spare.