Quick confession: The Great Gatsby is one of my most favorite novels of all time. I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic in high school and it utterly captivated me; I read it again in college and have read it a few times since. Needless to say, when I heard that Baz Luhrmann was going to be bringing the book back to the screen, I was both excited and hesitantLuhrmann's Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom are among my favorite movies, yet I worried that his penchant for phantasmagorical excess might dampen the book's spirit.
After seeing the movie, I can say that while my concerns weren't completely off-target, it wasn't an utter mess either. Luhrmann's version remained fairly faithful to the book, save a dramatic (and utterly unnecessary) device which had Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recounting the events from a sanitarium, where he was recovering from a bout of depression and anxiety following the tumultuous summer on Long Island's West Egg.
In case you've never read the book, here's a thumbnail summary. In the summer of 1922, Nick Carraway comes to New York to pursue a job in the bonds market. He rents a humble little cottage on the nouveau-riche West Egg, across the water from the old-money East Egg, where his distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives in a mega-mansion with her boisterous, philandering husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Nick, as it turns out, lives next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, moving in a ray of his own sunlight), a man of whom many incorrect rumors are spread, yet one who encourages the mystery as he throws opulent, boozy parties during which he mainly hides in the shadows.
But Gatsby, as it turns out, has been waiting for Daisy to visit one of his parties. You see, Daisy and Jay fell in love five years earlier before he was shipped off to fight in World War I, yet when he returned home after the war, he realized his penniless life was no match for the debutante Daisy, so he left her to marry the magnetic and wealthy Tom. But the two have never stopped loving each other, and Gatsby conspires to reunite with Daisy, using Nick as a somewhat unwitting matchmaker.
The first part of the movie, which chronicled in great detail Gatsby's parties and the debauched, no-holds-barred behavior in pre-Depression New York City, seemed tremendously unnecessary for me. I didn't pay the extra money to see the film in 3D (seriously?) so while I'm sure that added to its visually stunning nature, it was like a kaleidoscopic ride through the mind of someone with ADHD. How much could Luhrmann cram into these scenes? All that was missing was Betty Boop or Al Jolson saying, "You ain't seen nothing yet, folks."
When Luhrmann let the story unfold, and track the increasing unhingedness of the characters, all of whom were infatuated with someone they could never be with (yes, even Nick Carraway), the movie worked, for the most part. And as it barreled toward its tragic conclusion, DiCaprio and Edgerton's performances in particular were spot-on. But ultimately, like the legend of Jay Gatsby and his amazing parties, the movie was big on flash without much flesh.
Although he is unbelievably almost 39 years old, Leonardo DiCaprio truly looked the part of Gatsby, the "man in the cool, beautiful shirts," but his acting was as much a factor as the costuming. (My only criticism was the overuse of Gatsby's favorite appellation, "old sport," which had my teeth on edge by the end of the movie.) Joel Edgerton continues to deliver performances that simmer with undercurrents of rage and bravado, and I almost wish he was in the movie more than he was. I'm a big fan of Mulligan's, yet I felt at times she was a little too breathy and simpering; you almost wondered why someone like Gatsby would spend his entire life trying to prove himself worthy of her love.
But the weakest link in the film for me was Tobey Maguire. When the narrator of the movie is such an uncharismatic sad-sack, how can the movie rise above this? Quick answer: it really can't. Maguire's monotone did little to show just how tortured he was by the events unfolding around him, and while I found the way Luhrmann played up what appears to be Nick's infatuation with Gatsby intriguing, even that seemed somewhat unbelievable given Maguire's lack of emotional range. It's like he's been stuck playing emo-Peter Parker for far too long.
If Luhrmann had allowed The Great Gatsby to focus more on the story as Fitzgerald intended it and less on the setting, I think it would have been worthy of the word "great." This version was perhaps "The Slightly More Than So-So Gatsby" to me, sadly. And it made me hope Hollywood continues its lack of success adapting The Catcher in the Rye for the movies.