What if Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby didn't have to live up to the legacy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great American Novel?
An adaptation of this kind faces assaults from two camps: those outraged by any violation of the sacred text and those who were really frustrated in high school English classes. Too literary or not literary enough: That's a lose-lose scenario.
Luhrmann has established that he's willing to put himself in situations like this without seeming to care about the repercussions. You think it's a problem to turn William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet into a funkified teen-stravaganza? Not Baz. You think it's weird to turn pop chestnuts by Madonna and Kiss into the grand opera of Moulin Rouge? Not Baz. There's something perversely admirable about someone so willing to take pop-culture touchstones and turn them into colorful balloon animals.
In The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann keeps the basics in place. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) becomes involved in the lives of wealthy Long Islanders in the summer of 1922. On one side of the bay is his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her old-money husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton); on the other side is the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose lavish parties hide a secret past and a desire to recapture a love from long ago.
But from there, Luhrmann gets goofy. Nick's narration becomes a framing device. Part of his therapy even involves typing the Gatsby story; key phrases appear on screen as they're spoken in voiceover, all while Maguire turns into a walking reaction shot. Luhrmann drops anachronistic hip-hop beats into Gatsby's parties, then mixes in period Gershwin tunes, creating a discordant aural mishmash. He sends his characters barreling down the road in a vintage car chase. Then there's the decision to make the film 3D, which results in an unusual texture and keeps the focus on the visual cartwheels, rather than the character at the center of the story.
Gatsby is tremendously compelling as interpreted by DiCaprio, from the moment Luhrmann introduces him against a backdrop of fireworks. He's a wonderfully human mix of boundless optimism and anxiety, wrapped up in his romanticized notions about Daisy. That's a part of the story Luhrmann knows how to nail visually. He crafts lush montages of Gatsby and Daisy's time together, capturing a bliss existing outside of time. But it's DiCaprio's performance that grounds the movie in something jittery and vital, even explosive. Instead of showing respect for this magnificent character, Luhrmann buries him in a mountain of look-at-me antics.