“The Great Gatsby” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance and Cinema Cafe. PG-13, 2:28, two stars out of four.
“I like large parties,” Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) gushes in “The Great Gatsby.” “They’re so intimate.”
That seeming contradiction may be the closest thing Baz Luhrmann finds to a mission statement in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose for his adaptation of the quintessential Jazz Age novel. Luhrmann revels in throwing cinematic parties on the big screen, gaudy senses-pounding affairs that leave you little room to breathe. But he’s also genuinely sincere in wanting to get the intimate heart of the novel on screen, in Jay Gatsby’s doomed attempt to remake himself and preserve the past.
Luhrmann’s done it before — “Romeo + Juliet” was a feature-length music video that stayed surprisingly true to its source material, while “Moulin Rouge” amped up kitsch to operatic proportions. But he struggles honorably but mightily here to connect his film’s glitzy first half with its darker second half. I suspect there will be people who buy the Blu-ray, only to turn it off midway through every time, just as the last strand of confetti hits the floor.
Narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) gets swept up the din of the Roaring ’20s — the “golden roar” of Wall Street money, the wild parties, the constant throb of hip-hop music. Wait, what? Yes, as most probably know, Luhrmann and executive producer Jay-Z have fused period music to hip-hop, dubstep and pop on the soundtrack, to best translate the orgiastic glee of the era to modern audiences, and to best sell that soundtrack. After “Moulin Rouge” and “Marie Antoinette,” it feels a little old hat, really, and one can’t help but how a film with its tone rooted in African-American culture keeps its black characters in the margins, brief flashes of musicians and dancers and servants who exist only to entertain the rich white characters. That’s true of the lily-white book and the segregated times, of course, but still, there’s something deeply distasteful about watching all the black people in the film grin and grind and cheerfully let their culture be appropriated by the swells.
Luhrmann shoots in 3D, and his camera is restless and relentless, zipping back and forth across the bay between the old-money types of East Egg and the new strivers of West Egg, then through the sooty wasteland to New York City and back again. Tom (Joel Edgerton) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) are East Eggers, born so rich they never hard to worry about developing character. Over on the West Egg, Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws outrageous parties but is rarely seen. (His appearance a half-hour into the film, his confident grin lit by fireworks and Gershwin, is a doozy.)
Gatsby befriends his befuddled neighbor Nick, but there’s an agenda at work; he loved Daisy in a previous life, and hopes to not just win her back, but erase the five years they spent apart. Di Caprio is not just good in “The Great Gatsby,” he’s necessary; once he finally appears, his charismatic presence finally holds Luhrmann’s manic camera still. It’s funny that Fitzgerald included Nick as the surrogate for the reader, because in this version it’s really Gatsby we understand and empathize with, his hopeful illusions leading him to his downfall, his cool facade slipping away to reveal the desperate, uncomprehending man-boy underneath.
But in transforming from bacchanalia to costume drama, Luhrmann gets tripped up, losing the head of steam he’s built up along the way. He can’t think of anything to do with Jay and Daisy and Nick and Tom other than to have them in rooms talking to each other, and the shift in tone is deathly. Which is not to say individual scenes don’t work; the final hotel room confrontation, with Tom and Gatsby parrying over drinks while Daisy vacillates, is a masterful piece of acting and staging all around. But it comes from another, more conventional literary adaptation, and for better or for worse, Luhrmann has already bet his chips on not making that adaptation.