There will be no hating on The Great Gatsby from this corner. The knives have been out since late last year, when it was bumped from a Christmas release to today, always a suspicious, what are they hiding, move–but, really, you could feel the disdain since Baz Luhrmann, the director-as-impresario behind Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), announced that he was reteaming with Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of his unorthodox William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), for another adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. It’s not that this, or any, book, is unfilmable (how can that be, when respectable-to-excellent versions of Cloud Atlas, Naked Lunch, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are available?)–it’s just that a good movie has never been made from it, including the two most accessible, the stillborn 1974 dud with a cordwood Robert Redford as Gatsby and a horrid 2000 TV movie with the implausible Mira Sorvino as Daisy.
The chief sticking point, however, is Baz, an entertaining, enthusiastic fellow I had the pleasure of spending some time with when Moulin Rouge! was being touted in New York. I was resistant; the first half-hour of that film was like being stuck in a mashup meatgrinder, with wife Catherine Martin’s Oscar-winning sets and costumes flashing by in a hyperbolically edited melange of tinsel images and anachronistic music. But it did settle down, and gradually became quite affecting, particularly the second time I saw it, when I knew what was coming. And Luhrmann and Martin were perfectly charming and articulate, a year before their Tony-winning triumph with La Boheme on Broadway. That production was well and truly “spectacular spectacular,” Baz at his best.
Many find him superficial superficial. The failure of Australia (2008), a historical epic immune to Bazness, seemed to confirm him as a poseur. I admit I had my doubts. What amazeballs thing was he going to do with Gatsby? The answer: 3D, which, given his proclivity for fast cuts, is like putting live ammunition into enemy hands. Besides, it’s been done, often badly, in shabby conversions (yes, that’s you, Iron Man 3). Surprise: This may be the best three-dimensional presentation I’ve ever seen, and seeing it at the lush Ziegfeld in Manhattan was well and truly a swanky experience. Luhrmann and his cinematographer, Simon Duggan, clearly studied the classics of the format as they prepared to shoot stereoscopically, like Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), and while there some lovely, appropriate effects (snowfall, confetti, sentences, and a rain of Gatsby’s shirts over the dazzled Daisy, an image derived from the book) much of it is the camera gliding beautifully over environments, planes of activity cleanly separated, and the simple motion of the actors interacting right before your eyes. Like Daisy, I swooned, and I think Fitzgerald would have approved, as they are at the service of pulling you into Martin’s typically impeccable environments and having you all but feel her vibrant Roaring Twenties costumes on your skin.
[Do, however, see it at a theater that you know to have good 3D projection; don't skimp. My Facebook friend, New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick, insists that Luhrmann got it wrong, that the 3D is conceptually screwed up somehow. I saw nothing amiss, far from it, and I'm sticking with my enthusiastic impression.]
What else has been done to refurbish Gatsby? Jay-Z has been enlisted to provide a thumping song score, to accompany composer Craig Armstrong’s period music, which is played by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra. Though I live in his world-famous “stash spot,” and he and Beyonce favor us with occasional visits, I’m not really a fan of his music; however, he’s brought onboard some good collaborators, notably Jack White, Emeli Sande, and Lana Del Rey, whose poignant “Young and Beautiful” is a highlight. (Remember how we hated her last year? All sins forgiven.)
So much for the surfaces, which are all important in Fitzgerald, and the period/contemporary juxtaposition isn’t too jarring. What about the heart of the film? I’m not a Gatsby devotee, and I’ve never found “heart” to be of paramount importance to the text, or to the slender plot, which Luhrmann should have worked harder to get down to two hours. (At closer to 2.5, the party’s over before the tragic part of the tragiromance properly kicks in.) It’s all about elegance, and artifice, and, to fit it into another superhero summer, false fronts, concealment. Luhrmann and cowriter Craig Pearce put it a further remove by having narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) write the story and essentially become Fitzgerald as part of an exercise while drying out at a Midwestern sanitarium. That’s a workable device, and Maguire, given the most screen time, speaks blocks of text straight from the book with conviction. He’s very good–but we didn’t come for The Conflicted Carraway, and the actor’s longtime friendship with DiCaprio, which gives their scenes together a quiet ease, upstages Gatsby’s never quite requited love for Daisy. While DiCaprio, 38 and at his movie-starriest even in a pink Brooks Brothers suit, delivers a livelier Gatsby than what we’re used to, the lovely Carey Mulligan disappoints as Daisy, and their start-and-stop romance never gets far beyond puppy love. The Great Gatsby may not be an unfilmable novel, but to defeat even her Daisy may be an unplayable part, an ideal for the page only. (The rest of the actors, including Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke, are competent if unexciting, with only newcomer Elizabeth Debicki a standout as the dishy Jordan Baker. With werewolfish facial hair, Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan stands out, too, as Meyer Wolfshiem, not in the best way perhaps.)
What, then, to make of this Great Gatsby, borne ceaselessly into 3D, and Luhrmannized? It’s not great, but aspects of it are very good, and you’re not aware of the eons passing by as you were the last two times it was filmed. It gives you something to look at, and listen to, as the snatches of Fitzgerald are heard. It may cast a spell–or leave you with a hangover.