Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby: From Jazz Age to Baz Age

Leonard DiCaprio lends lovelorn glamour to Scott Fitzgerald's gangster hero in this mad, middling adaptation

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Warner Bros. Pictures / Bazmark Film III Pty Limited

The Great Gatsby. The title raises two immediate questions, one of which is easily answered. Why is Gatsby great? Because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel embraces all the urgencies of the decade he dubbed “the Jazz Age”: the fast cars and easy money, the plentiful booze (Prohibition made liquor cheaper) and available sex, the nexus of big business on Wall Street and in the underworld, all appraised in luscious prose.

Selling only 20,000 copies in its first years of publication (Fitzgerald’s first two novels, The Far Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, each sold about 50,000), Gatsby now moves that many copies every month. The book stays in print, and in fashion, because it addresses, as scholar Matthew Bruccoli noted in the 2000 BBC documentary The Great Gatsby: Midnight in Manhattan, “the ways in which the American dream has rewarded its believers and betrayed its believers.” Eighty-eight years after its publication, Gatsby remains as modern, youthful and shimmering as the creatures in it.

A second, thornier question: Why is Gatsby great? Jay Gatsby, a mysterious figure in Manhattan and Long Island lore, attracts thousands of revelers to his sensational parties either because the guests don’t know the source of his wealth or because they do, and that knowledge gives them the thrill of vicarious outlawry. Born James Gatz (“gat” was ’20s slang for a gangster’s pistol) to a Midwestern family of no particular means, he reinvents himself as a bootlegger with a dandy’s suave manners. He accumulated all this swag and notoriety in hopes of winning back Daisy Fay, the girl he left behind in Louisville, and who is now married to the aristocratic brute Tom Buchanan. Nick Carraway, Daisy’s second cousin and the book’s narrator, sees greatness in Gatsby’s abounding hope. But to Tom, and perhaps to Daisy, Gatsby’s new money is tainted, and so is he.

(READ: Our 1925 review of The Great Gatsby by subscribing to TIME)

Any movie of Fitzgerald’s novel has to take Nick’s view: that Gatsby is the noble man and Tom the thug; that Gatsby’s ambition to reclaim Daisy is not new money chasing old but rather a romantic, chivalric quest; and that the prize may not be worth the effort. Hollywood is well suited to dramatize these issues. It spends vast sums on the veneer of class, swank, luxe. It believes in the rogue warrior as hero, and the beautiful rich girl as a slave who needs saving from her bondage to the evil prince. It loves love. It is Gatsby.

The novel has inspired three big films, starring Warner Baxter in 1926, Alan Ladd in 1949 and Robert Redford in 1974, none of which were thought to have located the book’s seductive, elusive heart. (A special frustration of the 1949 version: Tyrone Power was originally to have played Gatsby; and Gene Tierney, Daisy — stars whose allure matched their characters’.) Because the notion of Hollywood has spread far beyond its Los Angeles borders, it is fitting that the latest adaptation should be made in Australia by Baz Luhrmann, whose riotous esteem for old movies informed his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! Those two blood-red valentines to love and death, bling and zing, created their own gaudy grandeur, as did Luhrmann’s stage transformation of La Bohème, which reached Broadway in 2002.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Having plundered Shakespeare and Puccini for tales of fateful romance, the director has reunited with his Romeo + Juliet star Leonardo DiCaprio (21 then, 38 now) for a go at Gatsby. He chose Tobey Maguire as Nick, Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Joel Edgerton as Tom. All are wise choices, but casting was the easy part. Luhrmann’s main challenge was either to find a visual equivalent for Fitzgerald’s elegant prose — the open secret of the book’s staying power — or to bend the material to his own exotic strengths. He tries it both ways, with varying degrees of success.

The novel’s Nick has retreated to his own Midwestern home after his New York interlude to consider what made Gatsby great. In the movie, Nick has taken residence in a sanitarium, where he spills out the story to a Dr. Perkins (Jack Thompson, whose character is named for Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins) and begins putting his thoughts on paper — a memoir that will become The Great Gatsby.

(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s 10 Questions for Leonardo DiCaprio)

For the film’s first half-hour, Gatsby is known only through his parties and the outlandish stories that have turned his biography into instant urban legend. This early section shows Luhrmann rampant. Phones literally jiggle when they ring; passages from the novel are scrawled across the 3-D screen, like fevered entries in a schoolgirl’s diary. The proletarian night town where Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) lives with her mechanic husband George (Jason Clarke) is spiffed up with a black dude blowing sax on a fire escape across from the garage. The camera of cinematographer Simon Duggan seems to think it can’t simply capture an image; it must wrestle it unconscious to the ground. It views a character from a ceiling perch or rushes breathlessly up to his face.

Gatsby’s parties are Ziegfeld Follies raised to orgasmic pitch. Hundreds of swells, flappers and ’20s celebrities (Gilda Gray, Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway) dance madly to purposefully anachronistic songs by Jay Z and Beyoncé, as the night sky erupts into fireworks and a blizzard of confetti. This is not so much the Jazz Age, or even the Pizzazz Age, as the Razzle-Dazzle Baz Age. The precision and economy of Fitzgerald’s style (the book runs a spare 48,000 words) get translated into the famous Luhrmann flair, expressed in art-direction adjectives and visual exclamation points.

(READ: How Luhrmann Bazzed up La Bohème)

In a way, this excess of opulence suits the setting. From Wall Street to the Long Island suburb of West Egg, where the mansion Gatsby owns abuts Nick’s more modest rental, to the old-money East Egg across the bay, Fitzgerald’s New Yorkers think too much is never enough. So more drink, gamier sex, posher clothes. (One scene from the novel has Daisy literally sobbing over the silk shirts Gatsby tosses her way.) To Nick and Gatsby — country-mice renegades from a part of the country still cosseted by 19th-century scruples — the big city is a Midas’s shiny Sodom. Gatsby, in novel or film form, shows a young man’s instant attraction to a town radiant with promise and threat. That’s one thing the movies have always been able to do: put the money on the screen.

Gatsby, when he finally materializes, is money incarnate: a true golden boy, with a tan that George Hamilton or John Boehner would kill for. A nicer Howard Hughes (whom DiCaprio played in The Aviator), he does something that this serious actor, who often seems to flee from his charm, hasn’t tried in ages: smile. Gatsby claims to be from old money, to have studied at Oxford and dabbled in painting, like the best class of America’s postwar emigres in Europe. He calls Nick “Old Sport,” in the Mid-Atlantic accent used by Broadway stars of the time. Nick can see through Gatsby’s pretense, but he warms to the native gentility, the dogged hopefulness behind the affected airs and dirty business deals. If the story is about Gatsby’s love for Daisy, it is even more about Nick’s love for Gatsby. The narrator has fallen for his new friend’s star quality.

(READ: What makes the first edition of The Great Gatsby so valuable?)

With star quality goes car quality. The ’20s was the first decade to make the automobile an essential embellishment to modern life, and many folks imagined they had a professional racer’s agility. (In 1925, a few months after the book was published, Pete DePaolo was the first driver to break an average speed of 100 mph at the Indy 500.) Gatsby in his yellow convertible, and Daisy and Tom, are carefree maniacs on the road, scattering unwary pedestrians and other motorists, who are the merest traffic cones to the rich and newly rich. One of these little people will stray into their careering path, leading to the novel’s single spasm of carnage (“her left breast was swinging loose like a flap”) that even Luhrmann cannot bear to put in his movie. Another Fitzgerald message: speed kills.

When Gatsby the man seizes control from Gatsby the rumor, Luhrmann slows down, content to play out his and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce’s summary of the story. It’s people talking in rooms — gorgeously appointed rooms, filled with smartly dressed folks. (Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife, was in charge of costumes and production design.) Hearts and flowers, mountains of flowers, eventually cede to heartbreak, in the grand Luhrmann tradition, and the actors emote up a summer storm. Maguire’s otherworldly coolness suits the observer drawn into a story he might prefer only to watch. DiCaprio is persuasive as the little boy lost impersonating a tough guy, and Mulligan finds ways to express Daisy’s magnetism and weakness.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s Moulin Rouge!)

Yet the emotions stirred here are not nearly so volcanic as those touched by DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet, or by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! The reason might be that, this time, only one of the parties can imagine dying for love. But it’s also because Daisy understands that her feeling for Gatsby could be as fictional as the imaginary ideal he has tried to embody.

When Nick says, “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby replies, “Of course you can.” Nick is right. The man with a film star’s charisma has fooled himself into thinking that life is a movie, always reshootable, and that his second chance with Daisy will be a more glorious Take Two. That’s why he occupies his West Egg castle, which looks like an ornately decorated wedding cake prepared for the day he marries Daisy; it’s the perfect setting for a Hollywood happy ending. But money can’t buy him love. At least, new money can’t. As Tom, the old-money sadist, explains to Gatsby: “We’re different.”

(READ: Gatsby’s Heirs in Movies and Fashion)

“The rich are different,” Fitzgerald said, prompting Ernest Hemingway’s cynical response, “Yes, they have more money.” But Fitzgerald was right: The rich are different, because they think they’ve earned their money, that it makes them American royalty, unbound by the laws that govern the mass of people whom they notice only in passing contempt. Gatsby uses his connection with the Mayor of New York to wriggle out of a speeding ticket, but that’s just a minor perk of the new rich. The old rich, as the book and this movie demonstrate, can literally get away with murder.

MILD END-OF-MOVIE-SPOILER ALERT: Nick has completed the memoir of  his friend, which he has called “Gatsby.” He leans over the manuscript and, as a final tribute and validation, adds two words above the title: “The Great.” Fitzgerald’s book has an enduring excellence, a hold on readers of every generation, that no movie version has yet been able to match. No question that Baz Luhrmann has concocted the worthiest, tenderest and most extreme of these adaptations. It deserves to be called ‘The’ Gatsby. Just not great.