This is not the “hip-hop Great Gatsby.”
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “great American novel” is remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original. Yes, Luhrmann takes certain liberties with the text and adds a framing device (narrator Nick Carraway is recovering in a sanitarium for drunks); and, yes, Jay Z adds some hip-hop flavor to the iconic party scenes. Still, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) has his green light and terrible secrets. The rest of the characters are easily recognizable from the novel: innocent Nick (Tobey Maguire), doomed Myrtle and George Wilson (Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke), cagey Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) and the rich, awful Daisy and Tom Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton).
None of the main characters are miscast, which is an achievement in itself. The party scenes are spectacular, which is to be expected from a flashy director like Baz Luhrmann. But Luhrmann doesn’t force his trademark peripatetic camera moves on the story—he meets Fitzgerald half way.
Having seen the film in its flat version, I have no comment on the effectiveness of the Gatsby in 3D. The use of CGI effects in general, however, is spectacular. Luhrmann and his army of computer wizards have re-created the novel’s most memorable settings in vivid fashion, from the Manhattan of Nick’s dreams (and, eventually, Gatsby’s nightmares) to the “valley of ashes,” the burned-out no-man’s land between Manhattan and the Long Island. This smoldering hell-scape is where workmen toil 24 hours a day in black clouds of smoke and the Wilsons eke out their squalid existence, all under the malevolent “eyes” of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg—a faded billboard for a forgotten oculist. This haunting image from the novel is made wonderfully real here.
This is not a genteel re-creation of a lost era. Luhrmann seizes on Fitzgerald’s use of car trips between the city and the island to introduce a visceral representation of the reckless energy that fuels the characters. Gatsby and the Buchanans drive like maniacs along Long Island farm roads and city streets alike, with Luhrmann’s exhilarating camera right along side. The kind of cars these rich people drove were powerful, fun—and deadly. Gatsby’s 12-cylinder custom Duesenberg is, in contemporary parlance, a bad motherfucker.
This adaptation ultimately succeeds because the lead actor is an ideal Gatsby. DiCaprio combines the high-octane movie-star charm of his Titanic performance with the intensity of his best work with Scorsese (think The Aviator), and Luhrmann, thankfully, doesn’t ask for too much of the latter. More crucially, the film endeavors to make the audience love the fact of Gatsby’s great, loony dream—not the dream itself. Because, in the end, Nick is right: Gatsby is better than that whole rotten bunch, Daisy Buchanan included. Daisy Buchanan especially.