IN the first minute of this film, keep your eyes open for the logo of director Baz Luhrmann’s company Bazmark Films. It includes the excellent motto, lifted from his 1992 film Strictly Ballroom: "A life lived in fear is a life half-lived."
So, if nothing else, expect fearlessness in Luhrmann’s film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In translating the book to film, Luhrmann boldly turns it into a 3D spectacle: Fitzgerald’s timeless prose is transposed to an outsized, gaudy, pop-up storybook.
Luhrmann, who also co-scripted with Craig Pearce, quickly shakes things up with a framing device placing the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), in a sanitorium where he is recovering from a condition of sleeplessness and debilitating alcoholism, suggesting that Carraway is a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself.
Instead of the "talking cure," Carraway is prescribed a writing cure by his wise old therapist (Jack Thompson) and out tumbles the story of how Carraway, in New York to make a killing in the bonds business, finds himself whisked into the lives of the rich and capricious.
The introduction comes via his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), married to the heel Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a polo-playing scion of entitled wealth. Nick is drafted as a kind of accomplice when Tom takes him to an apartment in New York City where he keeps his assignations with his sexy mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the wife of a pathetic garage mechanic, George (Jason Clarke).
In his own humble Long Island cabin, Nick becomes aware of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) through the lavish parties he throws on the estate next door. Gatsby is a mysterious figure, rumoured to have "killed a man." When Gatsby discovers Nick is Daisy’s cousin, a friendship is struck. Gatsby employs Nick as a go-between in an effort to win the heart of Daisy, with whom he fell in love five years earlier.
Gatsby’s actual history is a mystery to be solved. "This house and everything in it is an elaborate disguise," says a wise freeloader living in Gatsby’s home. But otherwise, this is a straightforward story subject to insane stylistic embellishment by Luhrmann, including a contemporary soundtrack produced by Jay-Z and outright cartoonish visual effects. (Gatsby’s famous yellow car zooms around like an automotive escapee from Speed Racer.)
It is aggressively stylish, and unnecessary. In a key scene in the movie, when Gatsby, Nick, the Buchanans and Nick’s worldly girlfriend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) converge at a suite in the Plaza Hotel where Gatsby makes his play for Daisy, Luhrmann plays it straight, with nary a single computergenerated doodad in sight nor a rapper on the soundtrack. And the actors hold their own quite well, thank you, especially Di Caprio, who brings a deeper romance and a sense of danger to the role that was wholly absent when Robert Redford played him in 1974. Edgerton likewise succeeds as the despicable Tom, and Mulligan does subtle work as a romantic heroine fatally lacking in the departments of both romance and heroism.
But the dynamics of the novel — how the wealthy tend to make pawns of the impoverished — is lost in the movie’s noisy, coloursaturated flash. In the wake of this movie, Luhrmann might consider another company motto, from another line of dialogue courtesy of Gatsby, when he fills Nick’s rustic house with flowers as a means to impress Daisy prior to her anticipated visit: "Do you think it’s too much?"