After seeing The Great Gatsby in hip-hopified 3D, I’m looking forward to the other similarly hip updates on other early-20th century literary classics that are sure to follow if the new Gatsby is a success. Imagine: Ulysses, in IMAX! The Old Man and the Sea, the Ride! The Awakening, in Smell-o-Vision! Director Baz Luhrmann’s ecstatic, occasionally spastic, adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel isn’t much less ridiculous than any of those ideas, yet what’s surprising is that some of it works anyway—not in spite of Luhrmann’s revisionism, but because of it. What Luhrmann loses in nuance and tonal faithfulness he makes up for with glitz and zest. He doesn’t adapt the book so much as extract its key components, strap on some fireworks, and then let the whole thing explode.
In some ways the adaptation is quite faithful to the source material. Fans of the book will find all the book’s major story elements, slightly rearranged to maximize cinematic impact, as well as a heavy dose of direct quotation, both in dialogue and voice-over narration. The story, about mysterious new-money gazillionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his quest for a lost love, is still told by his wide-eyed young neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Old-money rivals Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) still live in a mansion just across the water from Gatsby’s palace, and there’s still a pile-up of late-story complications involving an auto mechanic (Jason Clarke), his lusty wife (Isla Fisher), and the crooked businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan).
But where Luhrmann departs from Fitzgerald book is in his tone. Despite the presence of Carraway’s narration, the story is no longer presented as an individual’s inner experience. Instead, Luhrmann has transformed it into a kind of spectacle—part music video, part big-budget Broadway production, part club-thump dance party.
The movie’s nightlife energy is hypnotic at times, but it can also be distracting. Luhrmann’s soundtrack is packed with high-velocity remixes of Jay-Z and Kanye West, which he zaps into the middle of scenes with frantic urgency. Two characters will exchange a few lines of dialogue, then he’ll cut away to a dance party happening in another room. Then back to the characters and their conversation—but only for a few more lines before hurling viewers back to the party. Just like the endless subwoofer boom of real dance clubs, it makes regular conversation impossible.
Even still, it makes for an impressive spectacle, especially in 3D, and at least for a while, it’s exhilarating. But after an hour or so, it becomes exhausting, more like watching a two-hour commercial for a high-concept take on The Great Gatsby than watching the actual movie.
And when Luhrmann eventually does slow down for a beat or two, the movie loses its considerable drive. The director seems to have no idea what real human interaction is like, and no interest either. If it’s not a party, it’s not worth his time. It doesn’t help that he seems to have coached his actors into a overly broad, theatrical performances that sometimes seem more like soap-opera than cinema. The lone exception is DiCaprio. The 38-year-old actor is well-cast as the mysterious central character, a man of great riches and great anxiety who is trying to convince the world, and himself, that he’s not a fake. But the other performers are simply props; it’s always Luhrmann who holds center stage with his tireless vision of partying and privilege. He’s not interested in what the characters said or thought but in what they did and how it felt.
That sensibility makes the movie something of an exhausting mess, but it’s also a gorgeous, glorious, over-the-top vision, and an innovative attempt at reimagining an older classic for a modern audience. Is it the sort of thing that could ever work again? I’m skeptical, but to find out for sure I suppose we’ll have to wait for the sequel.