F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may be the most strongly Hollywood-flavored of the Great American Novels — its ready-made visual symbols (the green light on the dock, the all-seeing eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg), its unabashedly melodramatic plot, the noisy dazzlement of its parties — but it has never blossomed like a flower at the lips’ touch of cinema. It’s a tricky novel, staunchly interior, a tale told by a simple man about a fool — Jay Gatsby, who built a fortune so he could possess his long-lost love Daisy. What Gatsby doesn’t understand about himself — that a man who runs away from love out of shame at his poverty, then spends five years constructing a hollow shrine to his new status as a great catch, has deeper problems than money — is what powers the novel. The Great Gatsby is, among many other things, a prescient pre-Depression portrait of a bubble that had to pop and did.
That’s hard to get across in a movie, even with narration that spells everything out and often infantilizes Fitzgerald’s meanings. The new Great Gatsby rides a rainbow wave of 3D and hip-hop, straining mightily to seem relevant in the era of Jay-Z and Iron Man 3. (Gatsby is the original Iron Man, sheathed in the armor of privilege but with a wounded and vulnerable heart.) But all it can be, like every other attempt at the book, is a flip-page visualization. The 3D lends spatial depth to the sets, but the people in them are two-dimensional. This was to be expected from Baz Luhrmann, who has been drawn again and again to lushly doomed romances (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) only to litter them with lurid images. His Great Gatsby may be his most solid work (at least its structure holds his carny-barker instincts in check) but it’s still as aggressively opulent as his other films. The camera goes on being wowed by the signifiers of vast wealth long after the party’s over. Luhrmann is a guest who doesn’t know when to leave.
The film does offer a pleasantly bombastic intro to Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has invited the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), to one of his epic shindigs. DiCaprio is a little old for Gatsby but still looks young, and he does everything he can to nail the different sides of the former James Gatz. He works up a posh Oxford accent that amusingly drops the T from such words as “start” and, of course, “old sport.” He’s touchingly childlike when waiting impatiently for the now-married Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to arrive at Nick’s modest house for tea. DiCaprio seems to have read, understood and internalized the book; aside from gothy newcomer Elizabeth Dabicki as the extravagantly bored golf champion Jordan Baker, who exactly matches the Jordan I envisioned in the book, DiCaprio is the best at bringing the novel to the screen.
Luhrmann throws great colorful parties. But with anything that doesn’t involve spectacle or dazzle, he’s hopeless. An intractable problem may not be Luhrmann’s fault: Daisy is as dull as she was in the book. But in Fitzgerald she’s dull for thematic reasons — Gatsby knocks himself out to be worthy of a woman who isn’t all that interesting. His version of the American Dream is premised on self-delusion, wanting what he can’t have. In a movie we at least expect the camera to show us some of what attracted Gatsby to Daisy, but Luhrmann is too busy tossing confetti. To illustrate a greater failing — and I suppose this is a spoiler alert for a story most of you should have read by now — Luhrmann’s depiction of Gatsby’s fate is offensively pictorial, turning the elliptically-told tragedy in the book into a faux-poetic visual. Forget about Dr. T.J. Eckleburg; the eyes of Baz Luhrmann are all that matter here.
It’s not impossible to make a great movie out of material like this. The closest cinema has come to what Fitzgerald achieved was, of course, Citizen Kane, and Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane have been compared and contrasted endlessly by university students over the decades. (From some angles, DiCaprio, whose face has filled out in his post-heartthrob career, could pass for Kane here. Don’t give Luhrmann any ideas.) Orson Welles used every technique at his disposal to shed light on the inner turmoil of a man devoted to surfaces. Luhrmann is quite content to stay on the surface, to rub elbows with tuxedoed gents and bewitching flappers. (If the movie brings back the flapper look, it will have justified itself in at least one regard.) Even the book’s final line, perhaps the most famous last line in all of American literature, is given a bland and uncomprehending reading by the morose Maguire and accompanied by shiny text on the screen. Teenagers who rent this movie in lieu of reading the book deserve to flunk their summer-reading tests next September.