The Great Gatsby will always be an unfilmable novel because most of its drama resides in the space between the characters' snappy dialogue and their unspoken feelings of ennui, disappointment, and despair. This may explain why, transposed to the screen, Gatsby tends to become the very thing it abhors: a wild, loud party. The hyperbolic Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) is exactly the wrong person to adapt such a delicately rendered story, and his lengthy 3D feature plays like a ghastly Roaring 20s blowout at a sorority house. He underscores this likeness by augmenting the overworked Jazz Age standards on the soundtrack ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love") with new tracks by Jay-Z, but even without this gimmick the movie would seem weirdly detached from its ostensible era, or any era for that matter. All the flapper costumes and vintage autos in the world can't communicate the sense of moral rot that made The Great Gatsby such a breathtaking record of its time.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jay-G, so you can be forgiven for confusing this movie with the fictional one directed by Martin Scorsese on the cable sitcom Entourage. DiCaprio turned 37 as the movie was being shot, a good five years older than the Jay Gatsby of the novel; but then the character's mythical status seems to demand more gravity than a young man can supply: almost everyone to play him has been older by a few years (Alan Ladd, 35; Robert Redford, 37) or more (Robert Ryan, 48; Robert Montgomery, 50). Redford's performance in the 1974 theatrical release upped the ante in terms of star charisma, which must have motivated Luhrmann to go after DiCaprio; the actor is typically fine in the role, grasping the deep insecurity that forces Gatsby to worship his lost love, Daisy, from a mansion across Long Island Sound. Neither DiCaprio nor Carey Mulligan, as the unhappily married Daisy, can be blamed for all the hot air Luhrmann pumps into the characters' doomed romance.
Of course, the actual protagonist is not Gatsby but Nick Carraway, his modest next-door neighbor and Daisy's cousin, who becomes a reluctant go-between for the illicit lovers. A quick visit with the book will remind you that Nick is not the goggle-eyed fan often portrayed in screen versions but a skeptical, ambivalent young man, enticed by the carousing at Gatsby's mansion but still rooted in the midwestern values the other characters have abandoned as hopelessly passe. Tobey Maguire is too ingratiating a performer to put this complicated guy across, and despite Luhrmann's scrupulous devotion to the novel's dialogue and incident, the one scene he can't find time for is the poignant moment, after Gatsby has been shot to death, when Nick and Gatsby's father, arrived from Minnesota, look over a little self-improvement regimen that the teenage Jay wrote for himself in the flyleaf of a dime novel. Luhrmann gives us the great Gatsby, but the small one slips away.