The '20s roar until they're hoarse in Baz Luhrmann's splashy, slap-dashy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a movie to divide moviegoers into camps of swooners and groaners, and occasionally make them switch sides.
At times wildly propulsive and stodgily inert at others, Luhrmann's version of the classic novel is everything both his admirers and critics expect and more, for better and worse. It is aggressively bold, taking the excesses and conspicuous consumptions of Fitzgerald's characters to their illogical ends. If a scene calls for sparks, Lurhmann provides fireworks; if drama demands depth, he presents it in 3-D.
As a stylist, no one surpasses this Aussie auteur for audacity; he never met an anachronism he didn't like, including a Spotify soundtrack (Jay-Z, Florence + the Machine) for an antenna radio era. As an emotionalist, however, Luhrmann requires the grand delusions of lovesick fools — Romeo, a Parisian poet in Moulin Rouge or Jay Gatsby — to express the heart beneath the pulse. Nothing subtle, plenty gained.
Certainly nothing is subtle about Jay Gatsby, not his lavish reality or the mystique built around him by gossips in a tony Long Island community in 1922. His mansion is the scene of weekly bacchanals where no one needs invitations for everyone in high society to attend. Gatsby is a phantom at his own affairs, waiting for the one guest to arrive for whom everything has been planned: Daisy Buchanan, a former lover now married though Gatsby hopes not for long.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, and the role doesn't always fit as well as his suits. He gets a movie star entrance to die for, a killer tux and smile backed by fireworks and Gershwin. DiCaprio's confidence makes even Gatsby's upper crust accent and verbal tic of calling everyone "old sport" feel charming. Yet when Gatsby's confidence is shaken, so is DiCaprio's performance; the wrong insecurity creeps in, of trying too hard to move an audience. But he is far more effective than Robert Redford in the role 39 years ago.
At the same time, Carey Mulligan is the Daisy that Fitzgerald fans waited through other adaptations to see, willing to be as self-centered and undeserving of Gatsby's obsession as the character demands. Mulligan's voice is suitably "full of money" but not like Mia Farrow's sing-song parody of flapper-speak in 1974. This Daisy is a gold digger; no matter how rich she is it's never enough, which is the immoral to Fitzgerald's story.
The weakest link among performances — as it typically is with Gatsby adaptations — is Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway, saddled as he is with snobbish explanations of motivations and back stories. The script devises an excuse for Nick's narration that Fitzgerald didn't, couched in therapy sessions in a sanitarium. The character still delivers some of Fitzgerald's best lines, but Maguire in the movie is, as Nick describes himself, "within and without, simultaneously."
When the beat slows, so do Luhrmann's movies, and that's about 45 minutes before The Great Gatsby ends. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce are remarkably faithful to the book but should also be impudent enough to rewrite parts of this Great American Novel, especially when the love triangle tightens inside a Manhattan hotel room, strangling Luhrmann's knack for making the ordinary interesting. One final, wild night on the town, stretching the confrontation over more drinks and frenetic dancing, might preserve momentum.
Yet as a purely sensory experience at the movies you're hard-pressed to find anything more dazzling than the first 90 minutes of The Great Gatsby, when Luhrmann's riotous amusements make anything possible. Musical eras overlap like Nick's superimposed handwriting, smash zooms and silky dissolves force off-kilter perspectives, colors are garish and even 3-D can't contain the overflow of energy from the screen. That's when this Gatsby is truly great, which shouldn't be forgotten after it turns ordinary.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow him @StevePersall on Twitter.