If the road to hell is paved with good intentions then Baz Luhrmann’s outrageously overblown adaptation of The Great Gatsby must be the first toll-free superhighway to the fiery depths. Co-screenwriter and director Luhrmann clearly has nothing but admiration and respect for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, going so far as to invent a system of rules for condensing Fitzgerald’s elegant prose that Luhrmann actually calls “Fitzlish.” Snowflakes turn magically into alphabet letters and famous phrases from the book appear nonsensically on screen in Luhrmann’s film. But the internal monologue of protagonist Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) doesn’t translate well to voiceover narration, no matter how faithfully rendered. The movie captures little of the fragile humanity that has made the novel an enduring classic.
Shot entirely on sound stages in Sydney, Australia, Gatsby looks and feels like the product of some imaginary literature-themed amusement park. It’s not so much a period piece recreating roaring ’20s New York as a highly stylized and intentionally artificial representation of that era. The 3-D effects only undermine the extravagant sets and costumes, further distancing them from any connection to the real world. And the Jay-Z produced soundtrack, which ranges from hip-hop to electronica to indie rock, seems oddly out of place, though it was obviously intended to help bridge the story to the modern era and the financial excesses of today. Leonardo DiCaprio makes an ideal Gatsby, leaving everyone else in the movie to seem miscast by comparison. But his performance won’t even put a dent in Gatsby’s reputation as an unfilmable book. That is now etched in stone forever. — KEN KORMAN