Take Gatsby's entrance: a famous drop-shot in which Nick Carraway is taken in by a stranger at one of Gatsby's bashes, only for the stranger to let slip that he is, in fact, Gatsby himself. It's a wonderful, weightless moment, but Luhrmann botches it with elephantine emphasis: at the words "I'm Gatsby", we get the climax of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on the soundtrack, a fireworks display erupting in the background and the sound of Tobey Maguire describing Gatsby's smile for those members of the audience without the gift of sight: "He had the kind of smile that seemed to believe you and understand you as you wanted to be believed and understood..." We can see that. It's Leonardo frigging Di Caprio. To that old rule of cinema we can now add another: no act of Dionysian revelry is quite as laborious as the one narrated in voiceover by Tobey Maguire. He's all over this movie, regrettably, patiently explaining the effects his fellow actors are trying to pull off ("....with every word Daisy retreated further into herself"). Luhrmann has clearly tried his utmost to rev up Maguire's notoriously lethargic delivery, he still he manages the excitement levels of a small vole, recently awoken from hibernation by the roaring twenties and now anxious to get back to sleep.
I was a full 30 minutes into this film before anything really clicked. It came during Gatsby's big reunion scene with Daisy, as Di Caprio fusses with some flowers in anticipation of her arrival — no big moment but it gets a laugh, so relieved is the audience to encounter anything as recognisable as date jitters. The entire film rests on di Caprio's shoulders. If Lurhmann's Gatsby finds its audience, it will be because of the desire, nurtured by large swathes of the population, to find out whatever happened to that nice young man in Titanic, before he got all scuzzed up for Martin Scorsese, and does he still look good in a tux? The answer is a resounding yes, although the real artistry of di Caprio's performance rests in the entwining of the two stray halves of his career, delivering both burnished movie star and Scorsesean wild side: listen to him roar as he tears across the room to silence Tom Buchanan at the Plaza hotel. Redford was never this roused, barely allowing himself to break sweat, but Di Caprio looses the obsession at the heart of Fitzgerald's millionaire. His Gatsby is an obsessive coming apart at the seams, a recluse hounded by the newspapers, the first celebrity nutbag — a prequel, of sorts, to Di Caprio's turn as Howard Hughes in The Aviator.
You realise what Lurhmann has done here. If Fitzgerald's book was about money, Luhrmann's version is about celebrity — an understandable recallibration, even as it renders even more indistinct the class fissures tearing Gatsby and Daisy apart. Their relationship was never a model of clarity. As Fitzgerald wrote Max Perkins:
“The worst fault in it is a big fault; I gave no account (and had no feeling or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Daisy and Gatsby from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe. However the lack is so astutely covered by the retrospect of Gatsby past and by blankets of excellent prose that nobody has noticed”The Redford version had a solution to all this: montages, all tennis whites and lawn-fed languor, filmed through lens so smeared with vaseline you wonder the operator managed to get it on the camera. The gauziness was fitting. As much as Fitzgerald's prose mimics the sensation of falling in and then out of love with Daisy, the suspicion has always lingered that not only is she unequal to the weight of Gatsby's desires, but viewed in the cold light of day, undeserving (“For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery"). The thankless task of turning her into a romantic heroine goes this time to Carey Mulligan, an actress whose forte is soft-throated vulnerability and therefore not at her absolute best when posing coquettishly between orchids. Mulligan does her best to go digging for a part without making much of an advance on the gasps and giggles Mia Farrow came up with in 1974; as for the scene in which pulls away from a clinch with Di Caprio with the line "Why can't we just gave fun like we used to?" I thought I heard a thousand teenage gasps at such heresy. Luhrmnn's ambition to film the iGeneration's Gone With The Wind just went splat into the brickwork.
Nobody could begrudge this film its fabulousness but make no mistake that what Luhrmann purveys is a species of cinematic camp, with the emotional tinniness that implies. He mounts huge pop-art embellishments on the theme of certain emotions — the look of them, the sound of them, the pop cultural density of them — without the bother of actually going through with them. He makes a fetish of romance without feeling it: it's telling that the film's sex scene is slipped under the mat in the form of — yes — a montage. His valentine of a movie, it turns out, is not aimed at Daisy, nor Gatsby.
"If there's something you would change, just say"It's hard to mistake the compliment Luhrmann is paying himself here: by the final reel, the film is one long air-kiss to it's own visionary prowess, a character study of a chronic perfectionist that is also made by one. The movie ends with Di Caprio breaking the surface of his pool, alone at last, as if letting the burden of this handsome, hectic movie slip from his bronzed shoulders. How strange that this most phantasmal of characters should, in Di Caprio's rendering, be the most rock-solid presence in the film. B-
"It's all perfect. Sprung from your irresistable imagination."