Is it any wonder that Baz Luhrmann, a cinematic circus master of so much delirious excess, was drawn to the Roaring Twenties? He’s been remarkably adept at having his cake and eating it, too, by steeping his films in wild countercultures – Strictly Ballroom’s backstabbing competitive ballroom set, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’s hot bloods with too much money, Moulin Rouge’s showgirls and courtesans – and then draining off the excess to get at the pure-of-heart essence. Who but Luhrmann is more obviously able to chronicle the riotous bender that was the Jazz Age – and its morning-light, scratchy-headed hangover, too?
On paper, at least, he sounded good, and maybe the problem is with paper: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s required-reading source novel has been notoriously tricky to transpose to screen. Luhrmann’s version (co-scripted with Craig Pearce) is the fifth whack at bat, and it gets some elements right, others spectacularly wrong, in its retelling of the doomed Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), a self-invented entrepreneur with criminal ties who is anxious to woo back his first love, Daisy (Mulligan, rocking a killer warm coo that turns to wobbly gelatin under duress). Gatsby may be a glittering diamond – everyone who’s anyone flocks to his Long Island mansion to admire his shine and slurp the free hooch at his extravagant house parties – but he’s still got the stink of new money on him, a point that his rival, Daisy’s husband, that old-money thug Tom Buchanan (played by Edgerton with the heft and pencil-mustache menace of a Golden Age Hollywood baddie), is quick to sneer about.
Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom make a combustible mix, watched closely by Daisy’s second cousin, Nick (Maguire), who becomes Gatsby’s ally. The film carries over from the novel Nick’s narration, but eliminates much of his personal plot and inserts a corny framing device that puts Nick in a sanatorium for being “morbidly alcoholic” and prone to fits of rage, a diagnosis that hardly squares with Maguire’s eternally affectless delivery (he might as well be reading the phone book aloud). Maguire and DiCaprio are both too old for their roles, and their ingrained habits – Maguire’s bemused monotone, DiCaprio’s spit-flying theatrics – work against the film’s admittedly labored spirit of invention.
Luhrmann works double-time to make the material fresh, and the strain shows: The contemporary soundtrack (masterminded by executive producer Jay-Z) is ride-the-line fine, never undermining the film or elevating it, either, and the 3-D aspect is a dud (fireworks – a no-brainer – don’t pop, and extreme close-ups with no depth of field produce a laughable, floating-head feel). Intellectually, one anticipates a twinned euphoria and end-times despair during the many party scenes, but for all their surface bombast and precise choreography, they are at once frantically and yet palely rendered – a shadow play of something that should be felt viscerally and on multiple levels. By the time there is a second-act knock on the door of a speakeasy, I flinched from fatigue: Christ, not another bacchanal.
There are bright spots. The film emphatically articulates the thematically crucial geography of Fitzgerald’s opposing ends of Long Island. Edgerton and Mulligan are terrific, and they scruff every other actor up by the neck to do good work when they share the frame. I counted one moment when time stood still – which is what’s supposed to happen when a movie kicks you in the gut – but I wanted more than one moment from material this fertile, from a filmmaker this attuned to heightened sensation. Luhrmann has always had a knack with the fever of passion, but here he only catches high fever’s empty gibberish.