The Great Gatsby (2013)

Drama Rated PG-13

I could never quite get a fix on the outfits the characters were wearing as I read The Great Gatsby. So crucial to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story – a tale of careless people who invest more in their appearances than their relationships – the costumes deserved an imagination (or fashion education) I just didn’t have.

Baz Luhrmann has certainly helped with that. His adaptation of the Jazz Age novel puts things like costuming, makeup and production design at the forefront, and I don’t think that’s a quality that should be lightly (or derisively) dismissed. In its emphasis on this sort of ostentatious theatricality, this Great Gatsby captures the surface sheen that was such a crucial element of the book, while also allowing an air of real romantic tragedy to lurk under the surface. It is “superficially superficial,” to borrow a phrase from a far greater film that explores similar themes, The Earrings of Madame de…

I’ll confess that even for this Luhrmann fan, the movie took some getting used to. The first 20 minutes are frustratingly antic. As Luhrmann sets the stage for the tale of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – mysterious millionaire of West Egg, dogged pursuer of married socialite Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and curious friend of our narrator, aspiring stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) – he seems to be intent on making up for the tameness of Moulin Rouge. With a camera that never rests, lines of dialogue interrupted with unnecessary cuts and a general, hurtling breathlessness, the early moments of the film feel as if they’re taking place inside some sort of domed Disney ride – Gatsbyland! Add to this the 3-D effects (unnecessary as usual), and it’s like having the novel shot out at you from a giant PEZ dispenser.

If you’re able to make it through the first party scene at Gatsby’s mansion, you’ll come out on the other side to find a film of surprising restraint and patience.

But then things settle down. If you’re able to make it through the first party scene at Gatsby’s mansion, you’ll come out on the other side to find a film of surprising restraint and patience. The grandiose quality is still there – as well it should be, given the story’s milieu – but the movie actually pauses for full scenes and slows down for uninterrupted performances. The Great Gatsby will be written off as an ADHD romp, but to do so would be to overlook some wonderful evocations of Fitzgerald’s best passages, from Gatsby’s nervously arranged afternoon tea with Daisy to his disastrous showdown with her boorish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).

Edgerton, the Australian star of Animal Kingdom and Warrior, brings a class-obsessed menace to this supporting part, emphasizing the caste concerns at play. This is the first time I fully understood how Gatsby’s resorting to violence against Tom exposes him as a “lower” man. Also standing out is newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, whose aloofness is essential as Daisy’s statuesque, seen-it-all friend Jordan Baker. (To be honest, her performance succeeds in large part due to the fantastic hats chosen for her by costume designer Catherine Martin.)

The movie ultimately works, though, because of its three leads, each of whom is perfect for their part in their own distinct ways. Maguire has the awkward goofiness of an outside observer, while Mulligan gives Daisy a somber air that (dare I say it?) goes deeper than the flighty character we get on the page. As for DiCaprio, it’s a wonder he hasn’t played Gatsby before. A charming con man who’s pretending to be a playboy, Jay Gatsby is the sort of role that depends on DiCaprio’s gift for duplicity while also (appropriately) indulging his matinee-idol image.

Dare I also credit Luhrmann with exercising some self-discipline? Given his Romeo + Juliet past, it would have been expected that Luhrmann would contort The Great Gatsby into some sort of tragic romance, with Gatsby and Daisy as star-crossed lovers. But one of the haunting elements of Fitzgerald’s novel is that they cross their own stars. By allowing DiCaprio to emphasize Gatsby’s fatal flaw – his need for total control over Daisy – Luhrmann makes the tragedy here feel true.

Does this make his Gatsby the definitive adaptation of Fitzgerald’s book? Hardly. It’s more like a jazz improvisation on the original, one that goes off in its own, occasionally anachronistic directions. Some of those lead to blind alleys; most lead to interesting ones. “None of us contributed anything new,” Carraway observes early on, condemning the parasitic extravagance of his social circle. This Great Gatsby may not be playing your song, but at the very least you have to admire it for hitting new notes.