Baz Luhrmann's half-frenetic, half-subdued version of The Great Gatsby is almost 100 percent faithful to the novel in terms of plot, and almost zero percent faithful in terms of theme, character, and impact. I don't doubt that Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, have read the book, but if what's on the screen is any indication, they didn't understand it.
In the movie version, almost-30-year-old Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a blank-faced, Midwest-raised stock broker just starting out on Wall Street in the summer of 1922. He has a modest home in a part of Long Island populated by the nouveau riche, including his next-door neighbor, the smugly enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose opulent mansion is the site of frequent raucous parties attended by everybody who's anybody in New York. Nick observes this and the other decadent behavior of the Roaring Twenties as an outsider, drawn into it but never feeling part of it.
Across the bay from Nick and Gatsby's houses is a part of Long Island where the "old money" lives, including Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brutish, racist scion meathead whom Nick knew at Yale and who is now married to Nick's cousin, beautiful flapper Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Tom is a philanderer, currently keeping one Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), wife of a humble auto mechanic (Jason Clarke), as a mistress. Tom's infidelities are not a secret, not to Daisy, and not to Daisy's best friend, willowy pro golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki).
Gatsby is the sort of bon vivant millionaire who delights in being mysterious about where his money came from, and even where he came from. The more myths and legends about him swirling at his parties and in the newspaper society pages, the better. But with sincerity he befriends Nick, whose duty here is mostly to look at Gatsby in astonishment and awe and not have very many feelings of his own. Gatsby enlists Nick in a mission: to reunite him with Daisy Buchanan, whom it turns out Gatsby had a romance with years earlier.
As you may recall from the Cliff's Notes, one of the purposes of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel was to underscore the emptiness of the excessive, hedonistic lifestyle embraced by some of the wealthy during that prosperous time. Through Nick's eyes we see how frivolous it all is, how lonely and ultimately unrewarding the endless parties, bootlegged liquor, and general hedonism are. We sympathize with Nick the lonely outsider, with Daisy the free-spirited pixie kept in a cage, and even (up to a point) with Gatsby the romantic opportunist.
That's the novel. Luhrmann's version, presumably unintentionally, drains all the humanity out of the characters. Nick is a bore. (His own romances have been omitted.) Daisy is a simpering weakling. Gatsby is a phony schemer whose phony scheming is so obvious that you wonder how anyone in his social circle ever liked him. Tom Buchanan is interesting, but only because he's such a one-dimensional beast. Gone are the melancholic tragedy and the evocative language that have kept people reading The Great Gatsby for 88 years. (To be fair, America's high school English teachers have done their part, too.)
The kicker is that Luhrmann's concept for the movie -- basically Moulin Rouge!-ing the story to within an inch of its life -- isn't a bad one. Hip-hop, with its focus on ostentatious displays of wealth, is the modern equivalent of Gatsby's era; why not blend it with the sort of tunes you'd have heard in speakeasies at the time? Luhrmann's whooshing, highly energized depiction of the parties effectively conveys their mad revelry.
But in the non-party scenes, Luhrmann's style is curiously restrained, and with the characters having been sapped of what made them compelling, that leaves us with no reason to watch. He has reverence for Fitzgerald's skillful language and uses a lot of it in Nick's narration. (He "justifies" the narration -- needlessly -- by adding a framing story in which Nick is recounting the tale to a psychiatrist.) But without the visual or emotional beauty to go along with it, that language just sounds flowery, even laughable. The result is a flat, longer-than-average movie (based on a shorter-than-average book) that doesn't convey any of the source material's merits. On the bright side, if you read The Great Gatsby and thought it was boring, now there's a movie to help you defend your position.
The Great Gatsby opens wide in North American theaters on May 10.