The new film version of The Great Gatsby is, shockingly, terrific—opulent, powerful, and thrillingly gorgeous. Baz Luhrmann, the director and co-writer, plays it as high melodrama, operatic both in intensity and the lushness of its settings and costumes. This turns out to be the best possible approach. After a dreadful first five minutes, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is never less than immensely entertaining, and it moves splendidly. The re-creation of prewar New York and the bacchanalian revelry of the Jazz Age are on a scale I’ve only seen attempted once (in, of all things, Peter Jackson’s wildly underrated 2005 remake of King Kong), and the cinematic results are jaw-droppingly spectacular. That includes the 3-D, which was integral to Luhrmann’s conception from the get-go, and which works beautifully.
What Luhrmann’s Gatsby doesn’t have is the novel’s singular greatness, but then, what does? Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is a surpassingly, hauntingly, defiantly peculiar book. No one ever wrote anything quite like it before, and none of the million imitations since has come close to capturing its extraordinary qualities. There is a tension on every page between the quietly civilized tone of its narrator, Nick Carraway, and the emotional and social extremes of human behavior he is describing in the most achingly beautiful prose any American writer has ever produced. That tension is what makes The Great Gatsby a masterpiece.
The novel is a constant contradiction: highly realistic and highly symbolic, brilliantly satiric and yet utterly heartfelt, rich with detail even as it is remarkably sketchy. It is a book about specific people at a specific time in a specific place, and at the same time it is a near-mythic portrait of American archetypes, none more so than Gatsby himself. As a character, he is all but an abstraction; Fitzgerald never even describes Gatsby physically, except to call him an “elegant roughneck.” Gatsby is the distilled essence of the American character in Fitzgerald’s conception, with his relentless striving, his unquenchable hope, and his determined obsessiveness, all of which he deploys in pursuit of an ultimately suicidal romantic fantasy.
Luhrmann, a flashy and overwrought Australian whose notable previous films include the gangland Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and the crazy musical Moulin Rouge! in 2001, isn’t interested in Fitzgerald’s deep dive into America; he’s mostly consumed with glittering surfaces and ripe love triangles. Fortunately for him, his star is: What Leonardo DiCaprio does with the part of Gatsby is nothing short of miraculous. Gatsby is a Kennedy manqué here, all golden glamour, a human analogue of the glittering parties he throws. But, as in the novel, all that is on the surface. He digs deep into Gatsby’s desperate intensity—the hunger to reclaim the lost love of Daisy Buchanan that animates his every waking moment. That reclamation will heal the pain of his youth and the horror of his wartime experience while cleansing him of the gangsterism that has made him a rich man. DiCaprio has spent his career being mistaken for a pretty boy, but here again, he proves himself a superb actor capable of unsettling intensity.
Carey Mulligan, a young British actress, is the object of his desire: Daisy, the Louisville debutante whose voice “is full of money.” While she gets at Daisy’s high-born allure, Mulligan is unable to capture the quality of feckless unseriousness that leads Nick to famously describe her and her husband Tom as “careless people [who] smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” On the other hand, Joel Edgerton is perfect as Tom, who begins as a caricature of a rich and arrogant buffoon and ends up as one of the most chillingly and effectively pragmatic characters in all of literature.
And what of Tobey Maguire, who plays Nick Carraway? Alas, like the movie itself, Maguire begins dreadfully—with the insanely bright-eyed gee-whiz demeanor of Gene Kelly showing up in Manhattan as an out-of-town rube with a straw hat and glasses singing “Gotta Dance” in Singin’ in the Rain. He’s so over-the-top cartoonish that you hope someone will drop a piano on his head. (Luhrmann did this as well to Nicole Kidman, both in Moulin Rouge! and in his misbegotten 2008 epic Australia, for some perverse reason choosing wildly exaggerated takes for her opening scenes that made her seem like a very bad actress.) In the opening moments of Gatsby, we are treated to the movie’s only plot addition—the story is being told by Nick to a doctor in a sanitarium, where he has gone to recover from a nervous breakdown some time following the events we are about to watch. Here, too, he seems simultaneously overwrought and stiff. But he settles down and gets better as the movie goes on.
The sanitarium framing device, which seems silly, ends up solving a problem. Nick is an almost completely passive presence in the book, a watcher who never intervenes in the main action. By turning the movie into a flashback, Luhrmann gives Nick the chance to change and redeem his life as Gatsby could not. Once again, that’s not Fitzgerald’s Gatsby—but, like so much else in this unexpectedly thrilling film, it works better than you ever expected.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.