It would be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s 3D The Great Gatsby, a movie that’s practically begging for such a response. But we’d do well to remember the old saw that there’s no accounting for taste. Some will thrill to Luhrmann tarting up, in the vein of his Romeo + Juliet, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterwork; others will consider the film gauche sacrilege, especially in gratuitous 3D that seems determined to turn a great American novel—black and white and read all over—into a colorful pop-up book (coupled with a Jay-Z produced hip-pop soundtrack). The truth, as usual, is somewhere between these extremes. All of Luhrmann’s Gatsby is absurdly over-produced, most of it is supremely annoying, but much of it makes its own kind of sense as one audio-visual interpretation, expressly designed for contemporary cinematic taste, of an eighty-eight-year-old story.
As on the page, one Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) tells the tale, in hindsight, of his unusual friendship with nouveau riche millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose pointedly larger-than-life lifestyle suggests a uniquely American façade. Gatsby lives in the hope of reclaiming lost love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), now married to “brute of a man” Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Their Jazz Age tale plays out in Long Island, with Gatsby’s shoreside West Egg mansion positioned to longingly overlook the Buchanans’ East Egg property, its dock’s green beacon a symbol of Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope.”
Unsurprisingly, Luhrmann embraces Fitzgerald’s Romanticism but little of his realism, and the director's reckless-abandon style favors images and ideas over story and character. When all four elements work in concert, The Great Gatsby achieves flashes of pop transcendence, but Luhrmann makes the fatal error of playing more than half the film at the pitch of all-out comedy. Add Maguire doing Carraway like Peter Parker and DiCaprio busting out his bizarro "oh, this one's a period movie?" dialect (who has talked like this anywhere, ever?), and the movie loses hope of being taken seriously on dramatic terms.
When the picture does get serious—too late—it begins to make a case for itself (and its cast), but the damage has been done. For the drama to be effective, one must be able to buy into these characters as real people, and while we can understand Gatsby as head-over-heels lover and all-American con artist, Carraway as a destined-for-disillusionment hero worshipper, and Daisy as a tragic, tragedy-inducing wastrel, Luhrmann approaches the story and directs his actors in ways that hold them at a distance from us: the overkill plays less as bold art and more as lack of trust in the source material. As Nick says of one of Gatsby's legendary parties, "It's like an amusement park." Exactly, old sport.