Perhaps while growing up in the Australian school system, Baz Luhrmann read a different version of The Great Gatsby than the rest of us.
The fearless filmmaker turns the venerable F. Scott Fitzgerald novel into a completely original work that emphasizes visual dazzle over dramatic integrity.
The result is an ambitious effort even by the standards of Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), whose film offers some brilliant moments before turning into another case of self-indulgent sensory overload.
The story takes place in New York during the early 1920s, when the United States was enjoying an economic resurgence after World War I. It follows Nick (Tobey Maguire), a stockbroker whose neighbor is the flamboyant yet elusive Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is best known for throwing lavish parties at his mansion for the city’s affluent and social elite.
Later, Nick discovers that Gatsby once had a relationship with Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who now happens to be married to Tom (Joel Edgerton). It isn’t long before Nick becomes torn between his loyalty to family and to the alluring lifestyle of the mysterious outsider.
The actors have their faces on screen, but Luhrmann keeps the spotlight on himself with his persistent sweeping camera movements, frenetic cutting, anachronistic hip-hop music and other pretentious distractions targeting those with short attention spans. It quickly becomes apparent why the big-budget film had an extended post-production schedule.
The Great Gatsby does offer a breathtaking visual rendering of its setting that captures the essence of the Roaring Twenties. Each frame is packed with vibrant colors, enhanced further by some superior technical work in areas such as cinematography, set decoration, costume design and even 3D visual effects.
Given his distaste for subtlety, Luhrmann emphasizes the more melodramatic aspects of the story, which at its core is a tragic romance about obsession, secrecy and socioeconomic class. The cast generally plays along with performances that sacrifice some emotional depth in favor of odd accents and showmanship.
It might generally capture the spirit of the source material, but the timing of this adaptation is strange, as recent real-life economic struggles clash with the celebratory opulence and prosperity depicted on screen.
At any rate, maybe the film will have the side benefit of introducing a new generation of readers to the Fitzgerald novel, although they might be disappointed to find it doesn’t include fireworks or Jay-Z lyrics.
Rated PG-13, 142 minutes.