Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby might be the best I've seen of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, considered by many a singular masterpiece in American literature. Even so, it winds up feeling mostly like a 143-minute perfume commercial.
Much of that is down to Luhrmann's distinctive visual style, a hallmark of many of his films, including Australia, Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. You feel like you're watching a lithograph. The edges are fuzzy, enhancing the dream-like sensation that washes over the whole experience. Mix in the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and an anachronistic score that features plenty of Jay-Z and you are most of the way to Dior.
It works to a certain extent. Luhrmann's vision feels like one Gatsby himself would have appreciated. After all, if you were him, and you were throwing parties just on the off chance that you might catch the attention of your long-lost love Daisy, wouldn't you want to see yourself as the DiCaprio kind of Gatsby, flashing a dazzling half-smile and striding down a marble staircase with a martini in hand?
There is the fantasy of Gatsby, of course, but there is also the reality, and you can't do justice to Fitzgerald's story if you don't tell both sides. He's a fraud, a man of the humblest beginnings who reinvents himself just for Daisy.
What Fitzgerald is driving at in his novel is the often awkward interplay between the American Dream and American conceptions of identity. Luhrmann, perhaps because it's an impossible task in a film adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel or perhaps just because he's Australian, never quite wraps his arms around the headiest concepts in the novel, fixating instead on the fantasy of Gatsby and glossing over his true identity as a result.
He does do a good job of capturing the flustered desperation of Gatsby when he gets oh-so-close to the conquest that means more than all of his riches. The spell that Gatsby casts on so many is broken, at least for our storyteller, Nick Carraway, who is played by Tobey Maguire, and for Daisy. But he fails to place that development in the larger narrative that you find in the novel. What you're left with is mostly just a tragic romance. It has an impact, but not Fitzgerald's impact.
Look, it's not easy trying to translate a piece of literature that every American reads in the ninth grade into a successful film. You can't make everyone happy. You're destined to get picked apart. But no one made Luhrmann select this project and, as Romeo + Juliet shows, he's quite capable of adapting classic works. I admire his ambition, but I still see this as a failure.