The Great Gatsby is a Grandiose, Colorful, Pleasure-Drenched Night at the Movies

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May 9 2013 6:34 PM

The Great Gatsby

A grandiose, colorful, pleasure-drenched night at the movies.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby.
Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

Still courtesy of Daniel Smith/Bazmark Film III Pty Limited

After you've seen The Great Gatsby, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special:

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

As Nick Carraway, the mild-mannered but eagle-eyed narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, observes in the book’s early pages, “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” So it was with a Zen mind that I tried to approach Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the book, which, intelligent debunkings aside, I really do regard as one of the great American novels of the 20th century—and probably inherently unfilmable. Literary adaptations of books in which the language is all—particularly the work of high-modern prose stylists like Fitzgerald, Proust, Nabokov, Woolf—seem doomed to either plodding literalism or airy insubstantiality. (Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita had a nasty sense of humor all its own, but the script, written by Nabokov himself, dispensed almost entirely with the narrative voice that makes the novel so perversely seductive.)

Then there was the fact that Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director of such grand-scale entertainments as Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Australia, was the one who would be turning Fitzgerald’s economic tone poem of a novel into a big, glitzy 3-D spectacle. I’ve never been fond of Luhrmann’s films, and have only been able to tolerate a couple. (I think I walked out of Moulin Rouge, back when I wasn’t a film critic and could indulge in such luxuries.) His mania for heaping one visual excess atop another—look at this! No, look at this!— strikes me as a form of directorial ADD, an inability to let himself or the audience rest. And as a member of that winded audience, I sense an implicit condescension in Luhrmann’s tendency to flag and then re-flag a film’s major themes as his films go on—themes that were not introduced subtly the first time around. In Baz Luhrmann movies, ideas arrive with an ensemble.

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But of course, The Great Gatsby is the story of a supremely unsubtle man given to bold gestures and flashy set pieces, so maybe Luhrmann was born to adapt it. At any rate, his Great Gatsby was nowhere near as terrible as I feared. It is, as I suspected, a gargantuan hunk of over-art-directed kitsch, but it makes for a grandiose, colorful, pleasure-drenched night at the movies. And far from betraying the spirit of Fitzgerald’s novel, Luhrmann (along with his co-screenwriter Craig Pearce) treats the book with a loving mix of straight-ahead reverence and postmodern playfulness. During the huge, highly choreographed party sequences that structure the story (this isn’t a musical, but the recurring music- and dance-heavy sequences make it feel like one), you’re more likely to hear Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lana Del Rey than you are a tinny vintage recording of “Ain’t We Got Fun?”, the flapper-age standard that figures in a scene in the novel and that played at the end of the stillborn 1974 Robert Redford version. Luhrmann’s use of contemporary pop may spring mainly from a desire to sell soundtrack albums, but the notion of using hip-hop as a backdrop for Jazz Age euphoria makes sense: With his new wealth, loud pink suit, and impossibly sweet crib, Gatsby is a rap star before his time.

Dance-floor playlists aside, this Gatsby unfolds in a fairly conventional period setting (though this is the ’20s as seen through a distorting kaleidoscope, everything a little bigger and louder and lusher than life). In a klutzy frame story that’s absent from the novel, we meet Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) at a sanatorium where he’s recovering from “morbid alcoholism” and assorted mental maladies. He begins to tell his story to a benevolent, Santa Claus-like shrink, who provides him with a pen and paper with which to write it down. Later Nick will trade these tools in for a typewriter; whatever writing tool he uses, the words will occasionally drift up around him on the screen, then break apart and drift around him in a cloud of floating 3-D letters. It’s a hokey device, but the Nick-as-author conceit gives us an excuse to listen to some choice passages of Fitzgerald’s prose, which Maguire, giving a surprisingly quiet performance at this chaotic movie’s heart, delivers beautifully. Thematically, though, it does seem a mistake to turn The Great Gatsby into a self-referential bildungsroman about a young man’s journey to healing through authorship. When Nick finally pens in “The Great” over his manuscript’s original title Gatsby, we don’t so much feel pride in his accomplishment as annoyance at his smugness—he’s supposed to be telling us this story out of necessity, not ambition.

The story Nick has to tell is one that anyone who’s graduated high school in the United States surely knows, at least in CliffsNotes form: The mysterious tycoon Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) owns a gaudy estate next door to Nick’s rented cottage in the fictional Long Island village of West Egg. At one of his extravagant all-night flapper blowouts, Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), a dazzling former debutante whom Gatsby once loved and lost as a younger, poorer man. Daisy lives directly across the sound in old-money East Egg with her rich brute of a husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and is constantly flanked by her best friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), an icy-cool golf champion. Over the course of a summer, Nick is drawn into the orbit of these wealthy, powerful, lost people, whom he recognizes as a “rotten crowd” only after their unthinking cruelty has already caused irreparable harm.

Every image and set piece you remember from the novel—the crumbling oculist’s billboard that looms over the action with judging eyes; Gatsby flinging his collection of custom-made shirts at an overcome, weeping Daisy (and, thanks to the 3-D format, directly at us); the hot afternoon at the Plaza Hotel when the rivalry for Daisy’s affections comes to a head—is rendered in broad, operatic gestures. There were many moments when that broadness made me cringe: Does the CGI-aided camera always have to race at jet-ski speed across the water toward the symbolic green light on Daisy’s dock? Must Gatsby’s face really be seen for the first time against a backdrop of fireworks, as the climax of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” surges on the soundtrack? And yet for every slab of processed cheese, there’s another moment whose visual inventiveness pays off. In an early scene, Luhrmann turns one image in the novel—Nick looking out the window at a party, “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”—into a clever Rear Window-style tableau of a Manhattan apartment building bursting with untold stories.

Leonardo DiCaprio makes as good a Jay Gatsby as any living actor I can think of—he captures the character’s fixed-in-time boyishness as well as his innocent hucksterism, and he looks like a (dubiously ethical) million bucks in the splendiferous costumes by Catherine Martin, the director's wife (who also designed the dizzyingly lavish, champagne-and-confetti-drenched production—she must have been one tired woman by the time shooting ended). But DiCaprio’s physical presence seems almost superfluous in some key scenes, as Maguire’s voice-over narrates the idealistic striver’s actions faster than he can complete them. Our first glimpse of Gatsby, before even the Gershwin-accompanied debut described above, is a shot of his be-ringed hand reaching toward that oft-revisited green light as Nick describes watching his enigmatic neighbor … reach for a green light off a dock. Luhrmann doesn’t just gild the lily, he spray-paints it with glow-in-the-dark sparkles.

Somehow the connection that’s established between Gatsby and Nick—the charismatic gangster and the shy young banker he dubs “old sport”—feels more vital and convincing than the illicit love between Daisy and Gatsby, which, despite Carey Mulligan’s sensitive performance, remains more of a narrative conceit. Perhaps the sweet-faced Mulligan is a little too sensitive for this part—there’s a hard, narcissistic edge to Daisy that we don’t glimpse until very late in the film (which also, disappointingly given Luhrmann’s literalness, misses the chance to work in Gatsby’s observation that “her voice is full of money”). Many of the actors in smaller roles—especially Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke as Tom Buchanan’s working-class mistress and her duped mechanic husband—seem to be straining to fill their limited screen time with the most theatrical, Punch-and-Judy style performances possible. If there’s a discovery in the cast, it’s the Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Daisy’s enabling pal Jordan. In the novel, Nick describes the implacable Jordan as looking “like a good illustration, her chin raised a little jauntily, her hair the color of an autumn leaf.” Debicki’s cool, reserved performance captures the stillness of that description—when she’s onscreen there’s a moment of respite from the noise, a sigh of relief that there’s someone in this feverishly over-self-explaining movie we may never understand.