If anyone could pull off a multiplex-friendly adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- a film treatment that might be capable of stepping out of the long shadow cast by the book -- it's Moulin Rouge showman Baz Luhrmann, right? The Australian director who dragged Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers into the music-video-shaken, bullet-ridden '90s with Romeo + Juliet and compressed a century's worth of pop music and melodrama into the glorious Moulin Rouge?
In fact Luhrmann is least interesting when most restrained, as in the relatively stodgy Australia. And every breathlessly reported aspect of his Gatsby -- from the choice to re-create '20s New York in Australia, to the decision to shoot in 3-D, to the incorporation of Jay-Z-approved hip-hop and R&B -- suggests he has opted not to rein in the excessive impulses that have served him well in the past.
The film itself turns out to be an unapologetically garish riot of color and costumery parading before a restless camera, and for a while Luhrmann's go-for-broke impulses serve him well. Where too many directors seem at a loss to turn 3-D to advantage, Luhrmann uses it aggressively, plunging viewers into Fitzgerald's Jazz Age metropolis and realizing opulently decorated homes, bustling streets and an even more bustling underworld with equal care.
In the film's first act he turns the innocence-corroding journey of new-to-town narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, convincing as a wide-eyed innocent even as he advances well beyond Peter Parker age) into a mad rush of discovery. It will climax, of course, in that riotous party at the mansion of Nick's mysterious, nouveau riche neighbor J. Gatsby, a man much spoken of in the early going but little seen.
When Luhrmann finally reveals the title character, he does so as assorted partygoers work themselves into a frenzy, "Rhapsody in Blue" pounds on the soundtrack and fireworks explode in the sky. It's a glorious bit of moviemaking that doubles as a master class in the fine art of going effectively over the top. Unfortunately, the film is never again as successful; from here on, it has to dig into the bothersome business of telling Fitzgerald's story.
That's not the fault of the actors. Leonardo DiCaprio makes for a fine Gatsby, hiding behind the smile of a man who has set his world in order, letting the smile slip when he thinks no one can see him. He uses charm, graciousness and carefully practiced mannerism as bludgeon and shield as he defends the place he has carved out in a world hostile to dreamers, strivers and self-inventing social climbers.
As Tom Buchanan, Joel Edgerton plays his polar opposite, bringing a threatening physicality to the part of an entitled bully so secure about his place in the world as to believe, it would seem justifiably, that he can get away with virtually any kind of bad behavior. Only Carey Mulligan struggles, in the role of Daisy, the woman torn between the two men; a cipher on the page, she's not easily rendered as flesh and blood on the screen, even by an actress of Mulligan's skill.
Luhrmann takes great care with the rhythms of individual scenes, yet the film as a whole plays like a long trudge through a familiar story. Though largely faithful, the adaptation's greatest liberty is a framing device that finds Nick composing a confessional account of his time with Gatbsy while being treated for alcoholism at a sanitarium. It's a nod to Fitzgerald's own life, and it allows for large chunks of the novel to make it to the screen. It also gives the film a moralistic streak whose explicitness is alien to the source material; that nakedness underscores the gaps between the power of Fitzgerald's prose and that of Luhrmann's imagery, however eye-catching.
There's a bit of Gatsby himself, come to think of it, in Luhrmann's filmmaking. As if insecure of his standing, he keeps trying to dazzle, even when the focus might be better placed on the emotions of the scene. (As Gatsby confronts Tom toward the end of the film, the camera steps behind the blades of a fan as swooping noises fill the soundtrack, presumably in case anyone was getting bored with all that heated dialogue.)
Consequently, the material never gets a moment to breathe. For all the filmmaking skill on display, this Great Gatsby often feels more like a conceptual exercise than a thought-through take on the material. As the execution of an audacious concept, it's an impressive effort; as an attempt to distill the spirit of Fitzgerald's novel, it's a near-total failure. Luhrmann renders the green light on the Buchanans' dock with retina-searing vividness, but he never comes close to capturing its fatal allure.