For 86 years, Hollywood has failed “The Great Gatsby” by taking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel literally. Now comes director Baz Luhrmann, who’s incapable of taking anything literally, and what do we get? The “Gatsby” that, of three I’ve seen and two I’ve read about, seems most faithful to the spirit of Fitzgerald’s superbly sad book. His audacity pays off in a way that may not exactly reproduce the novel but continually illuminates it.
He has tamed the restless camera that made “Moulin Rouge” such a giddy madhouse, either intoxicating or headache-inducing according to your temperament. In “Gatsby,” the camera goes wild when people’s heads are spinning from the sex and booze and fast cars and soaring stock market of 1922. But as they speak from the heart, scenes grow still and silent, except for soft human voices.
Like all of Luhrmann’s stylized work, “Gatsby” doesn’t hide its artificiality or anachronisms. He built the sets in his native Australia and shot everything there, and the music by Jay-Z and others yanks us into the Rapping ’20s.
The cottage of narrator Nick Carraway, wedged in next to the towering mansion of Jay Gatsby on the tip of Long Island, looks as if Snow White will be the next tenant. The speakeasy where Nick and Gatsby visit Jewish gambler Meyer Wolfsheim – played, in a perversely entertaining stroke of casting, by Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan – appears to have come out of gangster films of the 1930s but never the seedy back streets of Manhattan.
Yet this doesn’t harm a story that seems like a fairy tale to most of us anyhow, set in a distant time among people whose fabulous lifestyles we can only imagine. Its essence stands out brilliantly: Nick’s crushing loss of innocence, Gatsby’s potential greatness and undoing by his own corruption, the careless way in which the rich trample others and move on without consequences to themselves.
Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce, who do take a lot of dialogue from the book, make “Gatsby” the memoir Nick (Tobey Maguire) writes in a sanitarium, where he has been sent for alcoholism and profound depression. His doctor (Jack Thompson, always welcome) urges him to describe the events and people that drove him there, and Nick remembers them all.
He begins with his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), once the most eligible belle of Louisville, Ky., and now married to wealthy sportsman Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). They live across the inlet from Nick and Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). The former has moved there by chance and the latter by design, hoping to recapture the brief relationship he had with Daisy before he went into the Army and overseas in World War I.
Nick romanticizes Gatsby’s dream. Though he gradually learns his neighbor grew rich selling bootleg liquor and swindling people in shady bond transactions, he believes Gatsby’s passion for Daisy has a purity that outshines all the underhandedness. At first, he pimps for them. Later, as he realizes how hollow they are, both they and he begin to collapse.
Luhrmann and Pearce diminish Fitzgerald in only one way: They make Gatsby shyer and gentler, so we’ll feel sympathy when he falls. He finally tells the truth about himself to Nick, who has to learn it in the novel from Gatsby’s father. So we identify with Nick, whose delusions about his supposed friend have more basis here.
DiCaprio captures all sides of Gatsby: the hardness of the swindler, the softness of the man who needs a confidant, the foolishness of a dreamer who invests in a dead dream. He goes well with Maguire, who caps a string of characters coming to reluctant self-awareness with this portrayal.
Supporting players stand out: Edgerton makes Tom understandable to us, however rudely he philanders and bullies, and Mulligan gets to the bottom of the shallow, conflicted Daisy. Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher do well in the small roles of a garage owner and his wife, who get caught up – as in some way all the characters do – in the fatal madness of the Jazz Age.