“It’s like an amusement park.”
That’s Nick Carraway, the wide-eyed, ever-present narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” describing one of the legendary parties thrown by the movie’s fabulously wealthy and elusive title character.
But Carraway could just as easily be referring to the very movie he finds himself in, a hyper-real, hyper-active, hyperbolic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that spares no flower, flapper or fringe in bringing Jazz Age decadence to throbbing life. It takes a singular brand of chutzpah to consider perhaps the greatest piece of American literature of the 20th century and say, “What this story needs is 3-D.” Australian director Baz Luhrmann is just that audacious, staging Fitzgerald’s tale of reinvention and self-deception as a 21st century visual spectacle and multiculti musical mash-up of Jay-Z, George Gershwin and just about everything in between.
For all of Luhrmann’s swagger, though, the net effect is akin to seeing “The Great Gatsby” miniaturized, its characters carefully choreographed against storybook illustrations of overworked perfection. It’s glib to suggest that Luhrmann has made a “Great Gatsby” for idiots; it’s more like he’s made it for infants, who prefer their nourishment pre-masticated and their stories pictorialized by way of bright, arresting images (baubles you can try to grab are always nice, and help develop fine motor skills).
By no means is “The Great Gatsby” a disaster: Even at its most shallow, the film rescues Jay Gatsby as a largely sympathetic, romantic figure rather than a cynically ironic one. But neither is it necessary. Childlike, fetishistic and painfully literal, Luhrmann’s experiment proves once again that it’s Fitzgerald’s writing — not his plot, his characters or his grasp of material detail — that has always made “Gatsby” great.
Luhrmann acknowledges this fact with his use of familiar words from Fitzgerald’s text, which flit, swim and scatter across the screen at pivotal moments. But, like most of his stylistic flourishes, they’re deployed more as an effect than a homage. As for the characters who populate “The Great Gatsby” — the enigmatic title character, his nouveau riche friends, the old-money enclave he seeks to conquer and the woman who embodies his most cherished aspirations — they’re little more than live-action props in Luhrmann’s curiously lavish depiction of the wages of lavish living.
Carey Mulligan brings less come-hither effervescence than glum self-reflection to the heedless Southern debutante Daisy Buchanan; if Joel Edgerton plays Daisy’s husband, Tom, with too-rough edges (he’s a brute but still nominally well bred), he embodies the role with muscle-bound, narrow-eyed menace. As Carraway — whose reminiscences Luhrmann puts in an utterly gratuitous framing device of a sanitorium therapy session — Tobey Maguire is his usual recessive presence, barely registering as either a dynamic part of the events he describes or their watchful witness.
Appropriately enough, Gatsby himself remains offstage as “The Great Gatsby” gets underway, finally making his dramatic entrance against a backdrop of fireworks to the strains of “Rhapsody in Blue.” There are hints of Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane in Leonardo DiCaprio’s interpretation of Jay Gatsby (born James Gatz), whom he plays with a playful glint, a boyish, athletic bounce and labored diction that, while appropriate to the shaky provenance of a parvenu, sounds less a clever characterization than DiCaprio’s own ongoing struggle to convincingly play a grown-up.
Still, DiCaprio manages to possess and convey a human heartbeat within an otherwise unmemorable ensemble of players who, as arrayed throughout Luhrmann’s fussed-over production, never come to fully inhabited life. Luhrmann uses 3-D less as a stunt than as a way to gain depth of field (attained in “Citizen Kane” — that most “Gatsby”-esque of stories — through camera and lighting), as well as a comment on novelty, technology and shifting aesthetic expectations. All of that makes perfect theoretical sense, but results in a film that is more performative than immersive, keeping the audience at a dreamlike, emotionally distant remove. Like Nick, we’re never quite “within or without” the opulent, ethically compromised world he writes about.
There are sensual pleasures to be found in “The Great Gatsby” — Nick’s vine-covered cottage next to Gatsby’s Gothic mansion, a confection-filled tea party where Jay and Daisy awkwardly reconnect, the spangly, noisy free-for-alls on Gatsby’s famous blue lawn. But for all its devotion to surface sheen, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is strangely un-beautiful, never becoming something genuinely new rather than an elaborately illustrated retelling.
When hysteria finally gives way to fatalism, the film itself seems to deflate, tacitly suggesting that the story’s most delicate, complex moral reckonings are less interesting than flagrant consumerism and excess. Despite timely relevance, enduring truths and Luhrmann’s earnest efforts to make “The Great Gatsby” jump off the screen, he — and we — finally can’t help but fail to grasp it.
Two stars. PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief profanity. 142 minutes.