Does Baz Luhrmann really understand The Great Gatsby? To be fair, a lot of people don't-- F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about excess and emptiness in 1920s New York has often come to stand for exactly the lavish debauchery that the narrator, Nick Carraway, becomes disgusted with by the end. And Luhrmann, whose auteurist stamp can be summed up with "more sequins!" is truthfully the last person likely to see the cynicism and bitterness of The Great Gatsby. If Fitzgerald is actually exhausted Nick Carraway, then Luhrmann is definitely ever-hopeful Gatsby.
But Luhrmann perfectly understands his version of The Great Gatsby, and that's what really matters in this excessive, sentimental, extremely literal and oddly touching spectacle that teeters constantly on the edge of debacle. Though Luhrmann is so faithful to Fitzgerald's novel that whole passages of the actual text spill out onscreen, he is consistently telling his own version of the story, in which Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a pure-hearted victim, in which Daisy (Carey Mulligan) loves him unambiguously, and in which Nick (Tobey Maguire) is driven so mad by the punishment he sees Gatsby endure that he lands, via a thoroughly unnecessary frame story, in a mental institution.
With the exception of that frame story and one minor deviation near the end, the film follows the book's rhythm beat by beat, introducing us to Nick and his tiny rental cottage, putting us through the awkward dinner at Daisy's house where we meet her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and Nick's stunning love interest Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), and then reaching its basic reason for existing with two raucous, insane party scenes. Nick is whisked off in to the city by Tom to meet up with his brassy working class mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) and then lingers at a party in an apartment outfitted in the brightest, reddest patterns that production and costume designer Catherine Martin could dream up. That hazy, chaotic party contains the familiar Luhrmann hallmarks-- the zooms, the characters laughing into the camera, anachronistic music galore-- but all of them are amped up exponentially at the next party, where we finally meet Gatsby.
By the time the camera actually alights on DiCaprio's face, there are fireworks exploding behind him and the climax of "Rhapsody in Blue" crashing on the soundtrack-- and, somehow, DiCaprio lives up to the introduction. The flash and panache of Luhrmann's Gatsby would be as hollow as those pool parties if the man behind it all didn't matter, but DiCaprio puts in one of his all-time best performances as Gatsby, a man with impeccable taste and manners who's barely certain himself that there's anything behind that shiny veneer. The party at Gatsby's, full of flappers dancing to rap music and 3D confetti popping out of the screen, is the high point of the film's frenzied style; from there on it's Gatsby, his dreams and his doomed love for Daisy that will drive the film, for better and for worse.
Parts of the story work beautifully-- Daisy and Gatsby's rain-soaked reunion at Nick's house is exquisitely awkward and romantic, as is the tour of his house that follows. Other parts seem swallowed the bigness of everything around them, as if Luhrmann was anxious to get on to the next party. Amitabh Bachchan is oily and menacing as the gambler Meyer Wolfsheim, but his role is far less important than in the book and clashes with the film's giddy romanticism. And there's always Maguire's reedy voice providing endless, redundant exposition, reciting whole passages of the book that tell us precisely what we're seeing onscreen, giving the sense that Luhrmann isn't quite confident enough to tell the story without leaning back on Fitzgerald's words.
Luhrmann is constantly giving us things we don't need-- a shooting star across the sky to symbolize Gatsby's love for Daisy, a zoom-in on Gatsby's ring as he stands in the window, a cutaway to the wretched residents of the valley of ashes-- but it's a rare thing to watch a director throw at everything at a screen and actually see any of it stick. When the spectacle soars too high, there's DiCaprio's magnetic, heartbreaking performance to level it out. When characters like Jordan or Tom start to seem like beautiful mannequins on which to hang beautiful clothes and plot points, Edgerton and Debicki provide surprising wryness or warmth-- Nick Carraway may come to hate all these people, but Luhrmann wants to embrace them all. And just when you think the green light on Daisy's dock has exhausted itself as a metaphor, there comes the film's famous ending, narrated not all that well by Maguire, but enduringly powerful all the same.
That all may be unacceptable to die-hard fans of the novel. But the last thing any us needed was another slavish adaptation of this high school syllabus stalwart, and for all the ways it flails, Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby makes enough inventive and fairly amazing choices to earn its outsize existence. Nick pities Gatsby for believing in the green light even when the dream has fallen apart. This movie is the green light-- and it may take a little bit of Gatsby's foolish optimism to believe in it as fervently as Luhrmann does.