Gatsby may have believed in the green light, but in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, every color in the spectrum is strewn across the screen to an orgastic degree. Like Project X for the gimlet-sipping crowd, Luhrmann takes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s source material, douses it in modern music courtesy of soundtrack mastermind Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, and shoots the melodrama with sweeping movements normally reserved for Lord of the Rings. Weary narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) describes Gatsby’s weekly festivities as a “kaleidoscopic carnival.” Quite apt: Luhrmann’s 3D spectacle goes from mesmerizing to dizzying in under 30 minutes.
Like Carraway, The Great Gatsby is eventually awoken to the “real” man behind the lavish production numbers. The movie changes course for the better when the brilliant Leonardo DiCaprio enters the picture. Like the plebs he greets, DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby takes the movie’s breath away, forcing Luhrmann to put aside his song and dance infatuation for dazzling performances in the heightened world he’s created. Luhrmann’s script sticks closely to the required high school reading we all know and love: After settling into a modest West Egg, Long Island cottage for the summer, Carraway is courted by Gatsby for friendship. With the help of the reclusive gazillionaire, Carrway experiences life in the fast line. But Gatsby has ulterior motives. Five years prior, he fell desperately in love with Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Now he needs Carraway to pull her out of East Egg long enough for Gatsby to convince her to leave her cheating, polo-playing husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Mesmerized by charm, Carraway reluctantly abides.
Maguire does a stand up job playing witness to Gatsby‘s upper crust destruction, but it’s DiCaprio’s show to steal. The actor finds new sides to his on-screen persona that outshine the glitz and glamour; in his first encounter with Daisy, Gatsby bumbles around Carraway’s living room, hyperventilating and trembling in fear like a teenager on his first date. It’s DiCaprio embracing physical comedy and low status — in complete contrast to what he does as the “Great Gatsby” who commands over parties and works shady business deals in the backrooms of New York City. Like the sporadic beauty of jazz, DiCaprio mixes Gatsby’s moods into one enchanting character.
The supporting cast feels more like they’re role playing in the Roaring ’20s then digging into their literary counterparts — impaired partially by Luhrmann’s insistence on voiceover and flashy execution — but there are standouts. Without material doing her an favors, Mulligan turns Daisy into a vicious romantic, her fragility exposed when Edgerton’s Tom reacts violently to Gatsby intrusion. The Aussie actor finds plenty of moments to chew up with his boisterous, period-appropriate delivery. The mustache doesn’t hurt the smarminess. In a small role, heralded Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan appears to push Gatsby’s buttons and turn the film on its head. He makes more of an impression than two normally strong performers, Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke, who have little to do as Tom’s mistress and her gas station-owning husband.
Luhrmann doesn’t put style over substance, though Great Gatsby is off-balance. The first half nearly collapses under the weight of production value and DiCaprio’s bravado isn’t quite enough to carry the film to greatness. The stylized backdrop, New York by way of Life of Pi, fit the larger than life story. If it were precisely used rather than slathered over the screenplay, Luhrmann would have a year’s best on his hands. Instead, The Great Gatsby straddles the line of disaster, manic in the vein of its protagonist’s delusional escapades.