Spoiler Level: I'm going to assume you've read The Great Gatsby. If you haven't, I suppose there's an outside chance you might enjoy this movie, so you should go watch it without bothering with my review.
I'm on record stating that, when it comes to adapting great novels to the screen, faithfulness to the text is an overrated quality. Greatness in any medium is, almost by definition, impossible to translate to any other medium, and so a slavish film adaptation of a classic novel is likely to be a dull and dire thing. One of my favorite movies of 2012 was Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, which took considerable creative liberties with Leo Tolstoy's epic and delivered a lush, sensual feast with visual delight, whimsy, and real emotional power. No doubt there were people who said that Wright not only failed to tell the story of Anna Karenina, but also completely missed the point of it—and perhaps he did. (I don't think so, but the argument could be made.) The thing is, I didn't care: if I wanted to read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, I was free to do that at my leisure. This was Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, and I loved it.
So why do I hate Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby so very, very much?
Because, make no mistake, I do: I found nearly everything about Luhrmann's vapid, candy-colored extravaganza absolutely excruciating, to the extent that it was only my thin code of ethics as a non-compensated critic that kept my squirming ass in the chair. The Great Gatsby is, to me, one of the quintessential novels of the American experience, and this tone-deaf Aussie has turned it into a tacky, lurid, ham-fisted confection without an ounce of authenticity.
Part of my imaginary code of ethics is the belief that critics should disclose their prejudices and preconceptions up front, so I'll fully and happily admit that I was predisposed to loathe this movie. I loathed it from the moment I heard who was directing it; though I'd rather enjoyed Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, I had found his Moulin Rouge so painfully unwatchable that I dreaded seeing how he would turn Fitzgerald's slim novella of the American dream into a similarly gaudy drag revue. I loathed it from the moment I saw the poster (now, sadly, adorning copies of the book), which suggested Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) had bent a bored-looking Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) over a tacky, art-deco credenza while a badly Photoshopped crowd looked on. I loathed it when I heard it was going to be in 3D, and have been making jokes about how the famous green light would be coming right at you, and how we could expect to see Myrtle (Isla Fisher) bounced off the hood of Gatsby's car and right off the screen into our laps.
So yes, mea culpa, it was wrong of me to go into any film I intended to review with such pre-formed opinions. But the greater crime is that every one of my jokes about The Great Baztby turned out not to be jokes. Gatsby may have believed in the green light, but Luhrmann so adores it that he can't resist charging the camera towards it at high speed—not once, but several times—as if we're on Gatsby: The Ride at Universal Studios. In the book, the death of Tom Buchanan's mistress Myrtle, run over by Gatsby and Daisy, happens from her husband's perspective, and reads—in its entirety—like this:
A moment later she rushed out into the dusk, waving her hands and shouting—before he could move from his door the business was over.
In Luhrmann's version, not surprisingly, this sequence is a grotesque ballet of violence, complete with overly saturated colors, extreme slow-motion, and full 3D sensationalism. You'll feel like a philandering floozy is flying right through YOUR windshield! the ads should proclaim, to bring the kids in. (In general, Luhrmann has decided that cars are the secret to providing some much-needed excitement to Gatsby's poignant story of living too long with a single dream. Simple scenes of driving to go have drinks at a club become danger-infused, high-speed chases through an amusement park version of New York: this isn't Gatsby, it's Fast and Furious 1922, or Grand Theft Auto V: Cracking West Egg.)
The funny thing is, the plot and dialogue of Luhrmann's Gatsby are relatively—even necrophiliacally—faithful to Fitzgerald's novel. With the exception of a bizarre and misguided framing sequence in which Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) narrates the story from a sanitarium—unnecessarily making the definitive everyman and observer of Fitzgerald's novel into a damaged survivor of the tale—Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pearce stick very close to Fitzgerald's text: they sing all the notes, they just get the tone disastrously wrong.
A few examples are in order. In the book, Nick is talking about the mysterious Gatsby to a random stranger at the party, before the man politely informs him that he is Gatsby; it's a wonderfully understated moment that underlines the differences between the man and the myth. In the movie, this same scene plays out, but DiCaprio turns dramatically and proclaims "I'm Gatsby!" as a kaleidoscope of fireworks erupts behind him. Everything here is turned up to 11: every party becomes a Cirque du Soleil show; the room with the billowing curtains in which Nick first encounters Daisy and Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) becomes an absurdly gauzy snowglobe; Nick's languid afternoon drinking with Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Myrtle, and some of their lower-class friends becomes a dreamlike and debauched orgy of sex and squalor, as if David Lynch were shooting the "Easy Street" number from Annie. It's one thing to honor Fitzgerald's prose, including what is (to me at least) the most exquisite and evocative ending in American literature; it's quite another thing to not only hear those words over the final shot, but to see them pulse onto the screen in overly emphatic 3D text. Only Baz Luhrmann could make that perfect ending feel as tacky and trite as a tricked-out PowerPoint presentation.
Even when his excessive flourishes are visually interesting—which, I admit, they sometimes are—they (and all the 3D, CGI-enhanced environments) lend an air of off-putting artificiality to all the proceedings: nothing feels real, so nothing feels like it really matters. (The 3D seems to have been consciously used to enhance this effect: it makes characters stand out against fake-looking backdrops like performers in a vaudeville show.) There's an argument to be made that this is a valid approach to Fitzgerald's novel of glitter and self-invention, which is much how Wright used a similarly self-conscious artificiality in Anna Karenina. (In fact, I suspect this is the real intention of the framing sequence: we are meant to excuse the visual excess as the coloring of Nick's memory.) But the way Luhrmann lays phoniness on so heavily and evenly with a trowel undermines any thematic intention. The grey, pre-depression bleakness of George (Jason Clarke) and Myrtle's coal-dust choked neighborhood in the "valley of ashes," for example, feels every bit as phony and theatrical as Gatsby's carnival-like bacchanals, so everything hits the eye with the same subtlety-free sense of flat illusion. It's flash for the sake of flash; there's no purpose, this is just how Luhrmann directs.
Of the performances, it's difficult to judge where to apportion blame. I've never been a huge fan of DiCaprio's, and he seems miscast here in what is—admittedly—an impossible role: though a year older than Robert Redford was when he played Gatsby in Jack Clayton's dull 1974 adaptation, the still-boyish DiCaprio has neither the range nor the gravitas nor the emotional depth to bring this iconic figure to life. But he's done no favors by Luhrmann's broad directing style or Pearce's shallow screenplay, which both further undermine Gatsby's mystique. For the first half of the movie Gatsby seems a clownish figure of comedy—there are some cringe-worthy moments of unfortunate slapstick—and for the second half he's a wet blanket of doomed romantic longing. Neither approach gets to the true heart of the character, and neither is very interesting.
Faring slightly better is Carey Mulligan, who is lovely enough, and luminous enough, to be believably worthy of Gatsby's obsession; she is also a good enough actress that one wishes she'd had the opportunity to play this character in a more thoughtful movie. She—and to some extent Joel Edgerton, as her husband—occasionally find moments of intelligence and authenticity in their performances, but they both seem far more interested in their characters than the film allows them room to explore. Maguire is another actor, like DiCaprio, who never seems to age, and it's to the detriment of his career: his boyish brand of slightly weird blandness worked in films like Pleasantville and Wonder Boys, but it's terribly limiting: here, Carraway seems not so much an insightful, slightly cynical observer, but more like a clueless doofus tagging along with the big kids.
I'm inclined, however, not to blame anyone for this travesty except Baz Luhrmann, who has used one of the true gems of American literature as an excuse to make this cheap rhinestone of a movie. He has no insight into this character, or this story, that you can't get from a casual perusal of the CliffsNotes, and seemingly no interest in putting recognizable human beings on the screen. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. Luhrmann definitely embraces the "orgastic" part, but—based on the evidence of this shallow, garish monstrosity—he doesn't know or believe in anything else.